Yesterday I wrote about some of the main themes we find in current media coverage of post-secondary education, and of universities in particular. Much of this coverage is highly critical of various aspects of university education and in many cases these criticisms are entirely justified, particularly from the perspective of students and parents, who represent a large audience for education coverage.
In spite of highlighting relevant issues, the critical arguments made in the media and in the "crisis literature" (and even in the comment sections of news websites) often seem ill informed. So while there are serious problems with some of the changes happening in universities, the debates that happen in the media don't necessarily contribute to public debate in a productive way.
This is why one of the themes throughout the WorldViews conference was the presence or absence of "trust" in the university-media relationship and the ways in which the university can be "mis-represented" when it does not actively seek to inform publics about the nature of its role, its functioning, and its usefulness to society.
The assumptions underlying many critiques of post-secondary education tend to be the same assumptions that then frame suggestions for the reform, or renewal, of universities. It's often argued that we must either return to (the best aspects of ) the university of the past, or destroy the institution utterly and begin again with a lighter, cheaper, more innovative and adaptable model, one that can somehow resolve the weighty tension between democratic and meritocratic that has become so much more evident in recent years; all the while becoming financially self-sustaining.
By some commentators, the techno-futuristic (and somewhat libertarian) argument is made that the introduction of new disruptive technologies, particularly the Internet and digital media, will force universities to change themselves and offer "value beyond content" as it were--since all "knowledge" will be available to students on the Web.
I think these arguments often ignore or discount the relational nature of education and conflate information with knowledge, assuming that education is the "delivery" of a product. They also reflect commitment to technological determinism, the idea that technologies drive social and cultural change; and they seem to assume that a high degree of individualism is necessary/desirable.
One issue I did not hear discussed at the WorldViews conference was whether post-secondary education earns more media attention now than in the past, and whether the nature of the coverage has changed over time. Because this question informs a part of my dissertation, I had it in my mind throughout the conference. I became interested in the question through having done media discourse analysis in the past, and through analysing universities' public relations materials for my MA project.
The small amount of preliminary research I've done shows an increase to the amount of coverage universities receive, over a 30-year period. I'll need a much more exhaustive corpus of news coverage from the 1970s and 1980s before I can say for sure, but I think the coverage has probably changed quantitatively as well as qualitatively, and that that's the case then there are plenty of reasonable explanations for the change. (I was focussing only on one university, as well; I'd love to expand that and study the issue in more depth for a larger project.)
For one thing, universities now receive far more "exposure" to different publics; more people come into contact with universities than in the past. This is a process that began decades ago and has waxed and waned over time, but at the moment PSE enrolments are higher than ever before and so the student exposure alone has increased significantly. This process of massification (which I've also discussed here) was mentioned by Philip Altbach at a panel on the second day of the conference, but that was the only time I saw the issue raised explicitly.
Not only are there more students in the universities, but these students are paying more for their education. Tuition tends to be on the rise in the U.S. (e.g. in the collapsing California system), in Canada, and most notably of late, in the U.K. where the government has raised the tuition cap from about £3,000 to £9,000. The cost of education is being transferred onto the individual even as the value of education to the individual is seen to be in decline.
This form of privatisation tends to encourage a consumerist attitude towards education, and changes the dynamic between universities, students, parents and also the media. Rankings tables create comparisons between institutions that allow for informed consumer "choice" (among other things); Macleans magazine designs its yearly university rankings issue as a guide for student/family stakeholders. Because students are assumed to rely on their parents or families for this money, parents too become increasingly invested in the "quality" of university education.
Universities have responded to marketisation, and to the privatisation/diversification of their funding sources, by investing more in strategic communication including advertising and branding, various forms of public relations, and reputation building efforts aimed at different key stakeholder audiences (public/taxpayers, students, parents, the government, granting agencies, donors, alumni and so on). These efforts tend to affect media coverage as well.
Why does media coverage matter? With all the trends taken into account, it's clear that government policy, not only in post-secondary education but also in science and technology, intellectual property, and other knowledge policy areas, affects more people than ever. It's therefore more likely to be the subject of heated public debate.
Universities need to pay closer attention the ways in which universities and PSE in general are discussed in newspapers, on TV, in magazines, and on the Internet, because these media have a strong hand in setting the terms of that important discussion. This is also where the terms of policy may be set out openly, where members of the voting public begin to make choices about what they support politically.
Attitudes and beliefs are circulated, reinforced, and re-formed both in the news and in the discussions that happen that are based on or triggered by media coverage. And what people believe, they tend to act (or vote) on. Universities have ramped up their efforts to present themselves positively, yet coverage of university education has been dominated by overwhelmingly negative discourses.
What is the disconnect happening here, and what can universities do to better inform the debate about them that ultimately happens beyond their walls, and beyond their control? How do universities adapt to this fast-paced communicative context wherein critiques and problems are amplified so rapidly? I think this is one of the major challenges not just for universities but for all organisations, at a time when negative messages can easily "go viral" through social media.* Universities, with their deep institutional roots and their immediate connection to young people, may feel this pressure even more. They'll also need to find an answer to it, since the (real and mediated) experiences of today's students will eventually shape the decisions they make about the educational systems of tomorrow.
[*I'm interested to see whether universities begin to engage differently with students who already attend, and to enlist them in ongoing efforts to build reputation and shape expectations of future students and their parents.]