GLOBAL: The University World News story

Every newspaper has its own story and ours began in early 2007, when a few dozen higher education correspondents scattered around the world found themselves with knowledge and skills but no newspaper to write for. Mostly freelance journalists, we had been fired en masse by Times Higher Education as it contracted its global coverage, retaining correspondents only in the US.

Amazed by the THE's parochial move, and the generally inadequate response by the media to the university sector's internationalisation, the informal network of journalists spotted a gap in global reporting on higher education and decided to plug it.

The decision was bold - we would launch a weekly international online higher education newspaper. This was especially so, since we had no money.

The thinking went like this: existing higher education and mainstream media focused on the countries in which they were located, with limited international coverage, and were mostly print-based with 'add-on' online services.

We believed there would be a large global audience for a truly international, quality paper that would enable readers to keep up-to-date with higher education at the global level, among the thousands of institutions and millions of staff across the world and in government departments, organisations, councils and institutes associated with higher education.

With a great idea but little business experience, journalists from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, Canada, the UK, Denmark, France, Greece and South Africa spent months debating online what the newspaper would comprise, how it would operate and what business model it would adopt.

We decided on a free paper that would survive financially on advertising, as most media do. We called it University World News, since the three words encapsulated what the newspaper would cover.

One thing was certain: it would be an online newspaper. In fact, the internet and world-wide web made the idea possible, eliminating the huge costs of printing and disseminating a print-based newspaper worldwide.

The journalists who jumped on board registered a private limited company in the UK (number 6266400), Higher Education Web Publishing, which produces University World News. The financial director, Tim Homfray, and MD Diane Spencer are based in London.

In the end 24 people, 20 of them journalists, in 12 countries opted to become shareholders. We dug into our meager savings to put up the small amount of capital needed to launch the paper. With so little capital, all shareholders agreed to work part-time and for free, using the capital to pay essential costs such as IT support and non-shareholder writers.

So University World News began life as a journalists' cooperative based on volunteer work. And so, largely, it remains today.

The two people who had been most involved in the editorial planning became the paper's founding co-editors - Australia's top higher education writer Geoff Maslen, and myself, a former foreign editor of THE and then Southern African current affairs correspondent for news publications in the UK and North America.

A management board comprising volunteer shareholders was established to run the business and a South African company was contracted to provide IT support - website design, content uploading, e-newspaper dissemination and database management.

University World News was launched as a weekly international online higher education newspaper on 14 October 2007. The e-newspaper was emailed to around 3,000 people working in higher education around the world. UWN journalists had plundered their contact books to come up with these initial recipients of the newspaper.

Editorial success

Editorially, the newspaper has been a resounding success. Within six months, University World News had an active and highly visible web presence.

By the end of last month there were more than 27,000 people in 150 countries receiving the weekly editions. In the six months to the end of September 2010, UWN received on average 75,400 unique visitors to the website a month, and on average 670,000 page views a month.

Among our readers, 28% are university leaders or senior managers (including vice-chancellors, deans or heads of departments or units), 37% are lecturers or researchers, 10% are administrators, international officers or other non-academic staff, and 25% are others (students, journalists, PRs, conference organisers, consultants or unknown).

We now have some four dozen journalists based in three dozen countries on all continents, and a system of regional editors - Yojana Sharma for Asia, Philip Fine for North and South America, Brendan O'Malley for Europe and the Middle East, and myself for Africa.

Official recognition came when Unesco selected University World News as media partner to the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education in Paris, and again when UWN became a media partner to the OECD's Institutional Management in Higher Education 2010 general conference, Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less.

Writing on the occasion of our 100th edition in November last year Sir Peter Scott, Vice-chancellor of Kingston University in the UK and former editor of Times Higher Education, commented that in its short life the newspaper had "managed to tick two boxes: the first can be labelled 'comparative higher education', and the second 'policy borrowing'", in which policies from elsewhere are cherry-picked by politicians, regardless of context. Scott wrote:

"The impact of UWN on comparative higher education studies has been to provide a comprehensive, reliable and (above all) sustained evidence base which up to now has largely been lacking. Other higher education publications have tended to downplay their international coverage as the cost of providing such coverage has increased and also as domestic agendas have become more dominant; UWN, therefore, has filled a crucial gap.

"Its impact on policy borrowing is potentially even more important. Its contributors are experienced journalists, often based in the countries from which they report. Their brief is to explain the complexities of higher education policies to a genuinely international audience - not to simplify them for a particular national audience," Scott continued.

"Above all, UWN provides a powerful link between comparative higher education and policy borrowing - by providing a more extensive evidence base and offering more sophisticated, and nuanced, analysis.

"A final word - UWN also takes international organisations, such as Unesco and the OECD, seriously (and on their own terms, not to the extent to which they support pre-conceived ideological agendas). Not many other publications attempt to do that; and even specialist academic journals are often still rooted in their national environments," wrote Scott.

"In its own modest way UWN is an example of truly global media. For that reason alone, although there are many others, it should be supported - whatever the difficulties of sustaining a higher education publication at a time when university budgets are being cut. We need it more - not less."

Africa edition

Around the time UWN was launching the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town (CHET), headed by Professor Nico Cloete, was initiating a major project called HERANA, Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, among other things aimed at conducting research into and developing the field of higher education studies in Africa.

One component of HERANA is higher education 'advocacy' - improving communication on higher education - and Cloete saw a role for the soon-to-be launched University World News.

The rationale was that Africa was not well served with comprehensive coverage of higher education by the mainstream media, or by media coverage of what was happening in other African countries - Africans knew more about developments in the sector in Western nations than in neighbouring countries. Second, people in higher education elsewhere knew very little about universities in highly marginalised Africa.

The conclusion: reporting on higher education in Africa needed to be strengthened. US-based donor the Ford Foundation agreed to fund a fortnightly Africa edition of University World News through the HERANA project. The Africa Edition was launched on 30 March 2008 and today it has more than 13,000 readers.

The business

Not surprisingly, given that UWN was initiated and remains run by journalists, the focus has always been on editorial and improving the newspaper. We didn't really have a clue how to make the paper financially sustainable, aside from selling advertising. Canada-based global advertising manager Stephanie De Bono was only appointed a year ago.

The business has staggered along, surviving on income generated from advertising, funding for special reports - from Unesco, OECD and CHET - and voluntary work by shareholders.

It is also thanks to the Africa Edition's Ford funding that University World News has survived, as a small income is derived from Africa for use of global content and the receipt by readers of the fortnightly Africa Edition of the Global Edition every other fortnight.

University World News is fully virtual. There is no office, though of course all the journalists have their own offices, wherever they are based, and we meet on MSN Messenger. So costs are low.

Global advertising revenue has been increasing steadily but slowly, and UWN found itself in the classic small business dilemma: an innovative and popular 'product' without the resources and capacity to capitalise on these.

However, UWN's growing global reach, the expertise encapsulated in its network of specialist journalists and the paper's strong content and rapidly expanding archive have attracted the interest of investors, along with the promise of improved resourcing in future.

A truly international publication

In July this year Kris Olds, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argued on his blog GlobalHigherEd: "The denationalisation of higher education - the process whereby developmental logics, frames and practices are increasingly associated with what is happening at a larger (beyond the nation) scale, continues apace."

The higher education media, he said, was starting to respond. "We are seeing rapid growth in the ostensibly 'global' coverage of the English-language media from the mid-2000s on." Also, there had been a gradual shift from paper-based to online publication.

Inside Higher Education in the US was the first fully online higher education newspaper, and it launched in 2005. In June 2010 The Chronicle of Higher Education, which had hitherto relegated international coverage to a few pages at the end of the publication, launched a global edition, rapidly followed by Times Higher Education, which also entered a content collaboration with Inside Higher Ed.

"From a temporal and technological perspective, it is clear that all of these outlets are ramping up their capacity to disseminate digital content, facilitate and-or shape debates, market themselves and build relevant multi-scalar networks," Olds wrote. Their different approaches reflected their different structures, resources, audiences.

"In many ways, then, the higher education media are key players in the new global higher education landscape for they shape debates via what they cover and ignore."

We argue that while other higher education media fit Olds' concept of the 'denationalisation' of higher education, University World News is a truly international newspaper.

Last week leading Australian higher education expert Professor V Lynn Meek, Director of the LH Martin Institute of Higher Education Leadership and Management at the University of Melbourne, wrote:

"I know of no other publication that offers both the timely and broad geographical coverage of higher education developments and policy issues that University World News does. The publication not only serves as an important vehicle for the dissemination of information, but as a forum for policy debates on issues facing higher education institutions and systems in the various regions.

"The global financial crises and its various spinoffs have reinforced the importance of gaining a global perspective on higher education, without which it is becoming increasingly impossible to understand local issues."

CHET's Cloete said that in the area of higher education studies, "perpetually occupied with internationalisation and globalisation, the irony is that it seems to be becoming increasingly preoccupied with the national and the regional". This tendency also held for most disseminators of higher education information.

"University World News is not only exceptional because it is truly attempting to cover the 'world'; it is also not distorted by the endless local ideological 'struggles' or 'tendencies' that news distributors so often fall prey to, and which are so boring and often petty when they do not affect 'our region'."

"A lute continua!"