Two international conferences in less than a month have focused on the relationship between higher education and the media - testament, if any were required, to the growing recognition that the two worlds are mutually interdependent.
Over the past decade, the volume of coverage of universities in British newspapers has increased tenfold, while academics are indispensable as commentators to television and radio. Universities, meanwhile, are more conscious than ever that they need the media to get their message over to the public, to prospective students or sponsors and to Government. At the latest of the discussions, organised by the Magna Charta Observatory in Bologna, Umberto Eco described the relationship between the two as akin to an old married couple, frequently rowing but incapable of divorce. Like many academics, his view of the media's impact on higher education is far from positive: exploiting and distorting university research, creating academic stars with undeserved reputations. But he notes that the basic relationship is not so different from that between early printers and thinkers of the Renaissance.
However unsatisfactory, the higher education market will ensure that links with the media grow ever closer. Both are in the research business, but the contrasting timescales under which academics and journalists operate suggest collaboration more than competition. As research findings are publicised ever more widely and prematurely, for example, academics will play a vital role in informing the public of the strength of competing claims. In many societies, they will continue to occupy a uniquely independent position from which to make political judgements. Inevitably, however, the symbiotic relationship between higher education and mass media will further blur the distinction between education and entertainment. The issues are particularly sensitive for this newspaper, which operates at the interface of the two worlds. Our role is to entertain as well as inform, and to get under the skin of the academic world to assist those who pursue a career there.
The Working Knowledge section, launched today at the back of the paper, is an attempt to do just that. Like the Professional pages it replaces, it is designed to help readers make the most of their current job and find the next one. The extra space will make room for more comprehensive coverage of the jobs market and offer new ideas on teaching and research. The aim is to provide a better service for young academics in particular, but also to address common concerns in universities and colleges. With the active participation of readers, the section should be one small example of positive collaboration between higher education and the media.