UWN celebrates 15 years of independent, in-depth reporting

University World News (UWN) passed another significant milestone recently – its 15th birthday – which is a moment for celebration of its achievements since its first edition on 14 October 2007.

UWN was born via the formation of UWN’s publishing company, Higher Education Web Publishing Ltd, by two dozen mainly education specialist journalists based around the world.

They had all been editors or international correspondents of the Times Higher Education newspaper and the Times Educational Supplement at the time when Times Supplements was sold by Rupert Murdoch’s News International in 2006 to a venture capitalist and the publications were seeking to cut back on international coverage.

Under founding editors Geoff Maslen and Karen MacGregor, this global network of correspondents set about creating an online global higher education publication that could reach every corner of the world without incurring the heavy costs of posting a hard copy – at the time some editions of the Times Educational Supplement were so heavy they were costing £100 a copy to post to some countries. Every week our global audience was emailed a newsletter with links to all the new stories on our website.

UWN quickly earned a reputation for providing independent, in-depth coverage of higher education worldwide based on two unique attributes – it used specialist correspondents on the ground in dozens of countries and it provided a truly global perspective, with no bias towards any particular country and a deep commitment to covering the Global South as well as the Global North, and Asia as well as the West.

A symbol of this unusual perspective was its development of a unique structure, with the establishment of what became known as the Africa edition in 2008, a specialist Africa subsite within University World News, promoted initially by a fortnightly newsletter.

It was and still is published by an independent South Africa-based non-profit, University World News – Africa, governed by an African board, run by an African editor (currently Cornia Pretorius), using African correspondents on the ground in African countries.

UWN’s devolution of responsibility for African coverage to an autonomous African organisation, creating a hybrid structure globally, is a highly unusual, possibly unique, development in journalism and reflects our commitment to seeing the world of higher education from multiple international perspectives, not just those of the West.

Another great strength, we believe, is that UWN provides a platform for international higher education experts – academics, university leaders, policy-makers and independent analysts – to provide high-quality comment and analysis on the development of higher education globally and the issues affecting the sector.

UWN’s mission is to support the development of higher education worldwide and universities’ efforts to build knowledge through excellence in research, prepare future citizens through high-quality teaching and excellent learning experiences and help make the world a better place by addressing social injustice, climate change and other global challenges.

The issues we cover in higher education reflect our commitment to defend the academic values of freedom and autonomy, fighting social injustice, defending democracy and internationalising collaboration and learning.

In the five years since our 10th birthday celebrations, we have covered many of the great issues faced by higher education around the world in this age, including deepening geopolitical tension, rising authoritarianism, expanding enrolment and related quality issues, access and inclusion, gender barriers, decolonisation, the drive for employability and the crises that have shaken universities including the coronavirus crisis and the war in Ukraine.

I took over as editor at the beginning of 2015, working alongside Asia Editor Yojana Sharma, Africa Editor Karen MacGregor (later succeeded by first Sharon Dell and later Cornia Pretorius) and Commentary Editor Mandy Garner. In that time we have built up our website readership to 3.5 million page views and 2.1 million annual visitors*. Our global newsletter subscriptions have risen to 56,000 and our Africa newsletter subscriptions to 30,000 and we have 50,000 followers on social media.

University World News today has readers in more than 150 countries, with particularly significant numbers in certain countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, India and the Philippines.

It has shifted from a model of a weekly edition to breaking stories every day, while still allowing readers of both our Africa and Global coverage who want to catch up once a week via our weekly newsletter to do so.

The coronavirus pandemic was massively disruptive of international education and international conferences and left University World News fighting for survival because of its impact on revenue streams.

To achieve sustainability while remaining open access, we rely on offering universities and university associations opportunities to reach our high-quality global audience through advertising, sponsored articles and partnerships.

But in the past 18 months we have strengthened our capability significantly and our commercial team is able to reach out to more universities and associations with these different types of opportunity to promote their interests and achievements.

Partnerships involve supporting UWN’s independent commissioning of more in-depth journalism and commentary on particular topics of great interest to academics, university leaders and policy-makers. It can also include supporting specialist hubs, webinars, podcasts and videos on these topics.

In all partnerships, UWN retains full independence and editorial control over the articles produced.

Over the years UWN has secured partnerships with many high-profile associations and organisations worldwide. It was the sole media partner of the past two once-a-decade World Higher Education Conferences hosted by UNESCO in 2009 and 2022, for instance.

Other partners have included the OECD, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the International Association of Universities (IAU), the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, the British Council, the Magna Charta Observatory, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and CHEA International Quality Group (CHEA/CIGQ),, Higher Education Strategy Associates, the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL), the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities, the University Social Responsibility Network and Study in Greece.

We have enjoyed longstanding partnerships on a hub or microsite for transformative leadership with the Mastercard Foundation dealing with topics such as social equity, gender empowerment, innovation and technology, climate change, civic engagement, employability, ethical leadership and internationalisation.

Our latest strategic initiative, reflecting increasing concern among universities worldwide to strengthen and promote their commitment to societal impact, is the launch of our SDGs hub.

It is dedicated to covering higher education’s contribution to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which provide a framework for all activities carried out under universities’ ‘third mission’ – their work on engaging with communities and collaborating internationally to address local and global challenges and transform society.

We will be working with HETL and IAU and others to promote the hub to an extended global higher education audience.

This SDGs hub will be further developed over the coming year to share best practice and give voice to the leaders and institutions that are making the most impact in contributing to achieving the SDGs.

In the years ahead we will be introducing more variety in our formats to stimulate our readers’ interest. We aim to deepen our engagement with our readers and develop ways to bring them together for events tailored to their interests.

Last but not least, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of our readers, all of our academic commentary writers, and all those who have kindly donated, for their support for our work over the past 15 years. This has enabled us to survive the most difficult of times and will help us to better serve global higher education in the years ahead.

*Audited figures for the full 2021 calendar year

Brendan O’Malley is editor in chief of University World News and was chairman of Higher Education Web Publishing for 10 years from 2011 to 2021.