Universities in the media spotlight like never before, says new Hepi report

More than 7,000 stories about higher education appeared in major newspapers in 2020, says the report, thanks to a combination of sector growth, costs to students, and an intensifying culture war

Last year saw a daily average of almost 20 stories about universities in the leading national newspapers, according to a report published today (18 February) by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

The exponential growth of the sector, together with student status making a de facto shift from learner to consumer, are the chief reasons cited for the sharp rise in media interest by Rosemary Bennett, the author of the report.

In a week which saw the education secretary announce that universities will be legally required to actively promote free speech, Bennett said that their position as a battlefield in an increasingly heated culture war is another key factor.

“Universities have become front page news, and not in a way that has been entirely flattering,” said the former education editor of the Times, ahead of the publication of her report, ‘Mixed media: what universities need to know about journalists so they can get a better press’.

“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.”

From the archive: University strikes: union calls on ‘sensible’ vice-chancellors to pressure sector body on pay

While ‘What exactly am I paying for?’ has long been a question on students’ lips, it has assumed particular pertinence at a time when they are being taught remotely and, quite possibly, living with their parents.

“It is not enough to say a degree means a better career, a higher salary or a more fulfilling life,” said Bennett. “An explanation has to focus what is on offer during the years of study.

“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.”

Too often, she said, there is a vacuum in areas of public debate – education in schools, the economy, mental health, etc – where universities should be proffering their considerable expertise. Instead, they too regularly – and involuntarily – take up column inches on such issues as the pay of senior managers.

“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.

“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.”

Universities have become front page news, and not in a way that has been entirely flattering – Rosemary Bennett, report author

On the free speech debate, she said that “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.”

Finally, while conceding that much of the media remains “obsessed” with Oxbridge, Bennett is clear that newspapers running more than 7,000 university-related stories in 2020 meant greater coverage of lesser-heralded institutions.

“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.”

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