Majority of public fails to appreciate academics’ pandemic impact

Fifth of respondents to major global survey said universities were ‘unimportant’ in fight against Covid-19

February 3, 2022
Reading paper on tube during pandemic
Source: Alamy
Universities anonymous: only 7 per cent of respondents globally always remembered the affiliation of a researcher interviewed

Less than half of the general public believe that universities have been important in helping the world through the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a major global survey.

While the success of academic science in developing vaccines, treatments and strategies to combat the virus has saved countless lives, results from a poll of just over 6,000 people suggest that the reputational benefits accruing to universities through the pandemic may be limited.

Far from surfing a wave of popularity linked to Covid-era innovations, only 46 per cent of the general public said universities were important in tackling the pandemic, according to a study by the World 100 Reputation Network, which polled at least 1,000 people each in Australia, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK and the US. A fifth of respondents said universities had been “unimportant” in the global fight against Covid, while 25 per cent had no sense either way of how higher education institutions had contributed.

That recognition of universities’ impact did not vary significantly from country to country, although those in Canada, the Netherlands and the UK were marginally more appreciative of academics’ efforts. US respondents were the least likely to be impressed.

Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, which has provided expert comment from UK academics on Covid issues, said she was disappointed “but not surprised” by the findings, which, in the UK, she believed were linked to a “squeeze on research communications” in university press offices.

“Many universities are doing incredibly important work, but they did not have the capacity to properly shout from the rafters about this research,” said Ms Fox.

While it was inevitable that certain universities with infectious disease specialists, such as the University of Oxford and Imperial College London, would claim a large proportion of publicity, their investment in press officers dedicated to science communication was still significant, she added.

“Press offices are having to target so many audiences – students, academics, alumni and potential overseas applicants – that they become deskilled in public-facing science communication,” said Ms Fox. “Press offices have been very busy with internal comms, reputation management or social media and don’t have space for a science press officer.

“That said, we sometimes hear that press officers can’t speak to us because they are busy writing stuff up for the internal website, even if it’s not clear who is reading it.”

Robert Dingwall, who founded the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham, claimed that the perception of students as spreaders of coronavirus may have dented any appreciation for academics’ efforts.

“It has faded a bit now, but there was a lot of tension between universities and local communities about students bringing the plague into cities and then spreading it around because of their careless living,” said Professor Dingwall, now based at Nottingham Trent University, who called this a “new resource for long-established conflicts, but it was another reason for universities to adopt a low profile”.

Breaking the perception that universities are concerned mainly with teaching students – most people’s main personal interaction with higher education – has also proved difficult, even despite their significant research activities, added Professor Dingwall.

In many minds, “universities are widely perceived as teaching factories rather than as keepers and developers of knowledge and culture”, he said. “It regularly shocks people when I point out how major research universities generally earn less than two-thirds of their income from teaching undergraduates.”

One problem highlighted by the report was that the public seldom recalled the institutional affiliation of a professor who appeared in the media to discuss research or Covid-related issues: only 7 per cent of respondents globally said they always remembered the university of a researcher quoted or interviewed, and 29 per cent said they never did.

Mark Sudbury, head of the World 100, which is a Times Higher Education company, said the findings highlighted the need for universities to “focus on public outreach work as a priority in institutional communications strategies in order to grow their reputations and to build wider support for higher education”.

“It will be more important than ever, post-pandemic, to ensure that local communities support and understand the positive role universities play,” he said.


Print headline: Academia’s pandemic contribution lost on public

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