Universities in Medialand: A special webinar on the public discussion of higher education and research

30th March 2021 : 14:00 - 15:00

Category: Webinar

Speaker: Emma Duncan, The Economist; Anna Fazackerley, The Guardian; Chris Havergal, Times Higher Education; Nick Hillman, HEPI; Debbie McVitty, Wonkhe; Peter Scott, UCL Institute of Education

Location: Zoom webinar, registration required

Audience: Public

Policy is now thoroughly political, and politics is a thoroughly public matter. The media (both journalist-based information and unmediated social networks, and the interactions between them) constitute the ‘public’ in contemporary societies. Of the two the journalist-based media has the main role in defining public issues, problems, and shaping – and sometimes slanting – content. As mass higher education systems and research have moved to a more central position in society, inevitably they have figured more in the media. Routinely, information media and social media open up issues inside the sector; while for their part, university leaders and their organisations attempt to work the media – not always successfully – on their own behalf, all the time with one eye on politicians’ responses to media coverage. Much of ‘university engagement’ and ‘research impact’ is normally conducted via both kinds of media. Buried in all of this are core assumptions about accountability and responsibility. When universities are pinged for dissatisfied Covid-afflicted students who want a discount on their tuition fees, who is being held to account, the institutions or the policy makers? Are universities responsible not just to government but to the public – and if they are directly responsible to the public, can media speak on behalf of the public? If not, who does?

Higher education and research are relatively open sectors but their openness does not always gel with the openness of media. Inner university sanctums and specialised knowledge are not easily reached. Universities have become self-interested corporations and they often have something to hide. Could the flow of communication be improved, and how can universities and the media become more savvy about each other? The time scales are different and often the issues seen as important are also different. The relentlessly national political framework of media does not coincide with the everyday internationalism of higher education for whom the global is not a marginal add-on but normal business. What is it about universities that is of greatest public interest, and how much should that matter? Does the media get it right or do important matters go missing? For example, why are higher education culture wars much more important as symbolic debates than they are on the ground? To what extent is media coverage of higher education about realities? To what extent is it about issues and interests that bubble up from below, to what extent is it top-down normalisation of the sector according to one or another political agenda, to what extent is it just about the need to provide entertaining copy? Are ‘what’s true’ and ‘what’s interesting’ inevitably different? Does media-based public scrutiny improve the performance of universities and enhance public involvement in them? Is the public agenda slowly slipping towards the social media side of communications, and if so what are the consequences?

Don’t miss our special 90-minute webinar on these vital questions. This is the 200th public seminar/webinar since CGHE began its seminars in early 2016 and we have extended the normal format to allow for a rich discussion. The issues will be explored by a panel of four leading journalists, whose coverage of the sector is enlightening and influential, a former journalist now working as a policy advisor after a stint as a university vice-chancellor, and the leader of the sector’s primary think tank in the UK – and by our participant audience. There will be a lively Q&A session.

This webinar is part of the free public seminar programme hosted by the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE).