In a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, the former Education Editor of The Times, Rosemary Bennett, reveals there were over 7,000 stories about universities in the leading national daily and Sunday newspapers in 2020 and explains why higher education is receiving so much more media coverage than in the past.

The new paper, Mixed Media: what universities need to know about journalists so they can get a better press (HEPI Debate Paper 26) includes a Foreword by Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Sussex.

Rosemary Bennett, the author of the new report, said:

‘Universities have become front page news, and not in a way that has been entirely flattering. This is not the result of a media vendetta or secret briefings from politicians, but of greater scrutiny – the sort of scrutiny most other sectors both public and private have become used to. The size of the sector, the growth in the number of young people going to higher education and the cost to taxpayers have quite naturally led newspapers, broadcasters and digital news sites to find out more about higher education. 

‘The other change is in tone. The increase in annual tuition fees to £9,250 in England and other escalating costs of student life, in many cases funded directly by parents, have resulted in universities becoming an important consumer story. That has resulted in the media championing the cause of students and whether or not they are getting a good deal. It makes it harder for universities to get their case across and explains why there has been such intense interest in high levels of vice-chancellors’ pay, the sharp increase in unconditional offers and grade inflation.  

‘Universities have not helped themselves by treating these three issues as matters of secondary importance, and more generally by not clearly explaining what exactly £9,250 a year is paying for. It is not enough to say a degree means a better career, a higher salary or a more fulfilling life. An explanation has to focus what is on offer during the years of study. This has become particularly pressing with teaching moving online during the pandemic and libraries and other facilities shut or hard to use.

‘Universities are highly accomplished at promoting their research in the media. In my paper I suggest they put equal effort into promoting their role in education. What new teaching methods are proving successful? How are they helping students catch up with learning they have lost out from during the pandemic? How can the popularity of English literature degrees be revived? These are all issues the media are interested in but hear little about from any institution.

‘Universities are often absent in public debates about education, giving the impression they are not particularly interested or detached from the rest of the sector. They need to join these public discussions, along with broader debates about the economy, mental health and free speech, for example, where they have considerable expertise. The debate on education is particularly lively at the moment with, for example, the future of GCSEs and A-Levels being questioned. Universities, with their wide range of teaching and assessment methods, have expertise that would be very valuable.’

On the pay of senior managers, the new paper says:

‘Some of the salaries appeared hard to justify given the sector in question is education and the institutions were charities. It tapped into readers’ sense of injustice over their children’s mounting debts. It played to the ‘ivory tower’ trope … I use the example of pay not to rub salt in wounds, but to show how easy it is for a story to take off when all the right ingredients are there. However, it also illustrates higher education is only getting the same scrutiny as everyone else. This is not a passing phase. It is how things will be from now on.’

On free speech, the new paper says:

‘The culture wars are unpleasant and the free speech row rages on. Feelings run high on both sides and it is tricky territory. But universities are at the sharp end. They have had to balance the right to academic freedom and free speech with student demands for “safe spaces” and particular speakers to be no-platformed on the grounds of offensive or hate speech. Many within the sector believe the political intervention on this issue is unnecessary and the media coverage verges on the hysterical. The majority of the stories concern hastily cancelled speaker events and withdrawn academic appointments or research grants which feel to me like perfectly legitimate territory for the media to investigate. I understand why universities stay out of the more general debate about free speech and its limits but it means the field is left clear for the zealots on either side.’

On ‘the Oxbridge obsession’, the paper says:

‘Nothing is likely to change in terms of the media obsession with Oxbridge. However, the news is not all bad. As there is simply more interest in the higher education sector and more coverage of universities these days, there is more space to go around. In the last few years, I have written about Warwick, Durham, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Nottingham Trent, St Mary’s Twickenham, Bath, Worcester, Swansea, Oxford Brookes, Sussex, De Montfort and many others. Increasingly, there is less snobbery in newsrooms about new or small universities, and an appreciation that “former polys” can be among the most innovative, serve their region well and do the heavy lifting on social mobility. No university is considered too new or too small to have an interesting view or change how it does things.’

In his Foreword, Professor Adam Tickell, writes:

‘As seats of learning, universities – and university leaders – cannot be neutral on integrity, on free speech within the law, on encouraging debate and challenge, on our place in contemporary life and so on. If we are, the risk is that we stop being seen as places where integrity resides, as places for debate in all of its messy forms and as the leaders we are in terms of our outstanding research and our excellent and sought-after education.’

Rosemary Bennett has 20 years’ experience as a journalist on national newspapers, most recently as Education Editor of The Times. She spent 10 years as a political correspondent based at Westminster and, as Social Affairs Correspondent at The Times, she led major editorial campaigns on adoption and teenage mental ill-health that secured legal change and reform.

HEPI’s previous output on how higher education institutions engage with the media includes a paper by Richard Garner, Return on investment? How universities communicate with the outside world (HEPI Debate Paper 16, 2017).

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