Five decades on, what’s new?

Like the sector it serves, THE has evolved over half a century; but like universities, our purpose remains unchanged

November 15, 2021
The Times Higher Education first ever front cover as described in the article

Fifty years ago, not quite to the day, the first ever issue of what was then The Times Higher Education Supplement rolled off the press, to be delivered as a pull-out in The Times newspaper.

The proofs of the first front page are covered in scribbles noting the small sums to be paid to contributors, and there is at least one recognisable name among the bylines: Christopher Hitchens did not last long, noting later that being sacked was probably a good thing career-wise, because he may otherwise never have left.

The THES was launched by Brian MacArthur, the first of seven editors in half a century. He died in 2019, but his successor Sir Peter Scott is among those contributing to our cover story, in which editors reflect on the biggest issues and changes in higher education during their time in post.

Sir Peter later moved into academia, going on to become vice-chancellor of Kingston University until 2010. He is not the only well-known academic alumnus of THE, as we have been known since dropping the S in 2008: the renowned historian Peter Hennessey was a staff journalist in those early days.

As the contributions to our cover story illustrate, higher education has both changed enormously and not changed very much at all in the 50 years that this publication has spent chronicling it.

In our head office we have huge bound copies, each containing a year’s worth of issues. Open one at random and the stories feel surprisingly contemporary, albeit the context has moved on.

THE itself has also changed enormously in that time, and particularly over the past decade.

Our HQ is still in London, but we have offices and staff all over the world, and while our independent journalism remains undimmed, our coverage reflects our now global audience. The goal, editorially, is to cover the stories that matter to a higher education audience wherever in the world it happens to be.

More broadly, THE’s wider activities now contribute to a much deeper and closer relationship with universities of every type in every corner of the world.

At the heart of this has been the emergence of THE as a data business, providing tools to help universities understand their performance and deliver strategic improvements.

The highest-profile aspect of this is the hugely influential THE World University Rankings which, because of their influence, have at times drawn controversy (for our part, we have always been clear about the importance of metrics being used appropriately, and the inputs properly understood).

It is also the case that, in keeping with THE’s 50-year relationship with universities, the methodology has been developed with the sector globally, and this consultation is an ongoing process.

Sometimes overlooked is the part that THE has played in developing consistent data definitions across international borders, which in turn has opened new possibilities for globally comparative analysis to support decision-making. This is one of the ways in which THE now works with universities, in the realms both of data and of consultancy.

In similar vein, readers will be aware of the gatherings of higher education leaders and experts we have convened in the World Summit Series – gatherings that continued remotely during the pandemic, and which are evolving again as face-to-face meetings return.

Finally, a thought about THE’s future role: in the past 18 months, we have started working much more closely with trusted partners to help international students find the most appropriate study destinations (more than 15 million come to our website every year while considering their choice of university).

We firmly believe THE can help young people get the most from this transformational opportunity, and help address some of the more problematic aspects of current recruitment models.

And amid the disruption caused by the pandemic, we launched a new idea: a platform for higher education staff in a wide range of specialisms to share their knowledge and expertise, peer to peer.

We have been thrilled by the response to THE Campus, both from the hundreds of contributors, and from university partners across six continents. We would love you to join that growing community.

So THE has changed a great deal. But like the stories we cover, in some ways we have not changed at all: our role is still to shine a light, and provide expert, trusted and independent insight and intelligence. Above all, everything we do is focused on and for universities, their staff and students.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: 50 years on, what’s new?

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