In most countries mass media reporting on higher education is primarily the preserve of newspapers, not of television or radio. Newspapers - print and electronic - report on news and developments in higher education, provide a platform for debate, and reflect current issues concerning the public, students, academics, tertiary organisations and governments - and, through this coverage, themselves influence the higher education agenda.
Summary of an essay presented at the Cluj-Napoca conference
The media complements more formal channels of communication within the sector, and between higher education and policy-makers. The media does this by linking higher education to the public (and thus to policy-makers); niched higher education newspapers by connecting people working or interested in the sector; and specialist publications by linking researchers to the professions.
Higher education has transformed significantly in the past decade, alongside an information and communication revolution that provides new means of delivering (and that has created a ravenous appetite for) knowledge and information that is rapidly accessible. These developments are related also to the internationalisation of higher education.
Roles of the media
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has described the dissemination and use of knowledge as one of four major missions of tertiary education in contributing to socio-economic development.
The news media sees its roles as including reporting on events, stimulating debate, serving the 'public interest', and 'speaking truth to power'. But public responsibility can sit uneasily alongside the business nature of most newspapers.
Newspapers are a complex but often neglected channel through which higher education stakeholders and consumers can participate and be informed. Growing the role of newspapers in disseminating research could make data more readily available for analysis and use in public policy.
National dissemination of information and public discussion of tertiary issues can only be widely achieved through the mass media.
Information dissemination by the media
Various international studies suggest that while newspapers report quite widely on higher education news and on knowledge produced by the sector, higher education plays Cinderella to school-level education. Further, only a fraction of articles reflect an international perspective.
But what about specialist higher education media, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and the online Inside Higher Ed in America and Britain's Times Higher Education?
The two primary ways in which international aspects of higher education may be reported, reflect the domestic-international editorial split: via 'domestic' articles; and via reports in the 'international' section.
Specialist newspapers do cover international aspects of higher education in their 'domestic' sections, publishing articles on student mobility, academic exchanges, international research collaboration and the like. But there is no systematic 'beat' coverage of international aspects of higher education.
University World News
It was Times Higher Education's ditching of comprehensive international coverage that led to the creation of University World News, the world's first really international higher education newspaper. University World News deliberately set out to respond to the internationalisation of higher education and to increase globally-disseminated reporting on the field.
Aside from original articles by its journalists it features analyses by academics, news of (especially international) higher education surveys and reports, and round-ups of articles on higher education published by others worldwide. The paper also runs regular special reports on a single topic from different countries and regions, enabling international comparisons.
The value of disseminating information on higher education was recognised by an expert group in Africa that has been developing approaches to linking higher education leadership training, studies, research and 'advocacy'. This led to the launch of a Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) initiative funded by major US donors.
Its concept document, produced by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town, argued that an expertise network needed to develop the field of higher education in Africa should consist of postgraduate programmes in higher education studies; research on higher education and development; monitoring of key data in selected countries; and "advocacy through multi-modal research information dissemination".
HERANA turned to University World News as a vehicle for disseminating information on higher education in Africa. University World News launched two regional publications: twice-yearly Special Africa Editions, which report in-depth on important topics; and fortnightly Africa Editions, which cover news, issues and developments.
Dissemination by knowledge producers
The media uses the internet as a vehicle for editorial content and as a source. Indeed, the internet has also transformed the media and enabled the launch of new publications not otherwise feasible. Universities also use the internet extensively, especially for marketing and public relations, but there is very little dissemination of research findings.
For universities, there is growing competition from organisations that depend on getting knowledge into the public domain. This includes advocacy groups whose information may not be adequately interrogated by journalists.
A challenge for subscription-limited scholarly journals is how to disseminate information to a wider audience, in the face of this growing volume of quality content becoming freely available on the web.
The sheer volume of free information is also impacting on what is reported. The media is fast and journalists are busy. The choice between reporting on accessible and credible information, or equally credible information that has to be arduously sought (and is sometimes reluctantly given), is a no-brainer.
The open access movement is gaining momentum, which is good news for the media in terms of dissemination - and probably for developing regions where rapid and free access to research articles could make a major contribution.
It can be argued that the media reflects higher education trends nationally, albeit not always comprehensively. But the media has not generally responded adequately to internationalisation and this is a shortcoming.
The media and higher education do not systematically work together in ways that benefit their public responsibility roles. This has not been comprehensively explored, although cooperation does exist on many levels.
A case can be made to increase collaboration between the media and higher education - particularly researchers of higher education - to improve reporting on the sector in ways.
Meanwhile, developments in information production and transmission are changing the basis of the conversation. The media needs to understand that access to information does not make it sound information. For its part, higher education should work to ensure that it does not lag in producing and disseminating knowledge and information.
* This is a summary of essay presented by Karen MacGregor, co-editor of University World News, at the 'Enhancement of Knowledge on Higher Education and its Dissemination: Imperative for policy and practice' conference, held at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca in Romania, last month.
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