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July 21, 2011

The complaint that "much of the global news is about a small elite: the very rich, athletes, entertainers, royals and politicians" seems particularly topical in light of the soul-searching about the state of journalism as the phone-hacking scandal continues in the UK.

But in this instance, the analysis focuses not on the output of the now-defunct News of the World, or Rupert Murdoch's hold over British politics. Writing on The World View blog (, Jorge Balán, a sociologist and international education policy specialist at the Center for Studies of the State and Society in Argentina, decries the way in which developments in global higher education are reported - or not.

Professor Balán argues that there is an unreasonable bias towards work by academics and universities in the English-speaking world that is "reflected in the poor news coverage of the massive volume of teaching and research that is carried out in languages other than English - in continental Europe, in the Arab world, in Asia, Africa and Latin America".

This, he says, points to "an implicit assumption that English is unavoidably replacing other languages - mainly in research, but also in teaching - and that the basic tenets of an Anglo-American model in higher education...are necessarily obliterating other models built on different historical and cultural traditions".

Just as "people who write in English prefer celebrities who speak English", so the "celebrities of science and advanced study" almost inevitably operate in English too.

However, Professor Balán, who is presently visiting professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, says the restricted focus of the English-language media should not be confused with the reality of global higher education.

"Despite the fact that English is increasingly relevant in the academic world and for the academic careers, national languages retain their primacy in dealing with the local world, including the national media, politics and public policy," he writes.

"Researchers in the humanities and the social sciences - often bi- or multilingual in their academic activities - largely publish, lecture and speak to the media in the predominant language or languages in each nation. Books in the social sciences and the humanities are published first in national languages and very few of them get translated into English, even very important ones.

"Teaching, with the exception of programmes addressing the needs of a truly international student body, takes place in many languages other than English."

Professor Balán writes that "the adoption of English as a lingua franca by non-native speakers takes place in international gatherings where English is the preferred second language of most participants - but well over 90 per cent of the courses in China, Turkey, Brazil, Egypt or Russia are still taught in the official national languages".

Where the traditional media have failed, however, Professor Balán argues that bloggers have stepped in. "Blogging is opening the international media to voices and concerns from the non-English speaking world of higher education," he writes.

"Blogging has been at its best in reporting on the role of students in political transitions, with the Arab Spring as a primary example."

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