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First Annual 2015 Worldviews Lecture on Media and Higher Education

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Simon Marginson, Professor of International Education at the Institute of Education, University of London

 

“Universities, the plutocracy and the 99%: Is high participation in higher education the problem or the solution, in societies that are becoming more unequal?”

Lecture will be webcast, visit OISE for more info

When: Tuesday, April 21, 2015

1:30pm to 3:30pm, followed by a reception
Location: Ground Floor Library at OISE, University of Toronto
252 Bloor Street West, Toronto
Cost: Free

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Watch 2013 Conference Highlights Video

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Is media coverage biased in favour of universities over colleges?

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The media are biased in their coverage of higher education in Canada, favouring universities over colleges. That was the contention of Anne Sado, president of George Brown College in Toronto, speaking at the Worldviews 2013 conference on media and higher education held at the University of Toronto near the end of June. “I’m not here to challenge whether university or college education is better,” said Ms. Sado. However, “I do feel there is bias around coverage between universities and colleges.”

Ms. Sado was speaking as part of a panel discussion, alongside University of Toronto President David Naylor and journalists Simona Chiose, education editor at the Globe and Mail, and Louise Brown, education reporter at the Toronto Star.

“I think there is an opportunity for the media to make sure there is a recognition of a much broader range of postsecondary options than perhaps there was at one point in time,” Ms. Sado said. “We have “two robust streams of education. Students choose their pathways based on many needs and interests. Some choose colleges, some choose universities.” At George Brown, she noted, 20 percent of students have completed a university credential and another 11 percent have some pervious university experience. “We’re told they come to use for our practical and applied programs that lead to jobs.”

And yet, “I feel the media do continue to emphasize universities in their reporting. There are far more experts from universities that are quoted when discussing many, many subject areas. I feel the perspective of colleges is often overlooked.”

Ms. Sado gave the example, among others, of Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, an “incubator” program for student-led digital media start-ups. That program has had “well over 100 media mentions” over the last year, she said. “We have a digital media and gaming incubator at our college – not mentioned once.”

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Why Do We Have More Female Scholars, But Few Public Intellectuals?

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When I think of Dr. Brittney CooperJoan MorganDr. Melissa Harris-Perry, Dr. Tanisha FordDr. Treva Lindsey and Dr. Kaila Story, I imagine the intellectual ancestors smiling down on them. These women scholars are progressing public discourse through their academic work. Their scholarship ranges from hip-hop feminismto fashion as political resistance, but their influence within and outside of the confines of the academy makes their research accessible to those without advance-level degrees.

Though the ladies listed are members of a growing chorus of women intellectuals, a three-year study conducted in Canada found male professors outnumber female professors in media coverage and overall reach. Shari Graydon, former president of Media Action—a non-profit organization that encourages gender equity in media—presented her findings at the Worldviews conference in Toronto.

Graydon said there’s a 4-to-1 imbalance within the public intellectual tradition. Researchers examined the male-to-female ratio in major newspapers, radio programs and television talk shows. They found an extensive disparity between the voices represented through these outlets.

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Intervention versus the open market

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In the Anglo university model, it is never quite clear how involved the government is allowed to be in university affairs. Although the strong emphasis on institutional autonomy stresses the power of universities to set programming priorities and policies, governments often play a regulating role that has serious implications for university operations.

The recent provincial government intervention in Ontario’s teacher education programming is one example of government action that will dramatically change the sector.

Stakeholders are, of course, divided on whether these changes will be a marked improvement or not. But the changes are coming and the government has asserted itself in regulating professional programmes to meet labour market needs. 

Labour market interventions

There seems to be a recurring blame game that ensues when graduates of professional programmes find themselves unemployed.

This was the case at one of the sessions of the recent “Worldviews 2013” conference, co-hosted by University World News, in which student activists and journalism professors had a rather heated Q&A time about whether journalists are born or made.

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Media coverage of higher education – From propaganda to watchdog

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In many senses, the media is still state controlled in China and does not enjoy genuine freedom of speech. Yet the relationship between the media and higher education is multi-faceted, highlighting changing roles, focuses and approaches.

Roughly, three stages can be discerned.

In the first stage, from the 1950s through to the early 1980s, media coverage of higher education basically served the state propaganda agenda, showcasing government directives and opinions and how success was achieved by following government policy. 

When China adopted its reform policy in the early 1980s, a market economy emerged as well as divergent interests. The media was then gradually used for communicating ideas and opinions in order to build a normative base on which further reform initiatives could be carried out efficiently and effectively. 

This function of media coverage of higher education could be observed, for example, when the Chinese government was set to charge tuition fees to university students, to dramatically expand higher education enrolment and to invest in a small number of selected universities with the aim of heightening their status around the world. 

Since the dawn of the 21st century, with a market economy in place and an increasingly democratised Chinese society, the media has been playing the role of a watchdog of higher education. Notably, this last stage runs more or less parallel to the process of higher education expansion.

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Risk, responsibility, and public academics

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As my last academic event of the season, I attended Worldviews 2013: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education in Toronto on June 20th and 21st. I’m not going to write about the panel in which I participated (“Who are the MOOC users?”, with Joe Wilson, Aron Solomon, and Andrew Ng), since I’ve already spent enough time thinking and writing about that issue of late. But there was another very interesting theme that I noticed coming up throughout the conference. In a number of the sessions I attended, I heard emphasis being placed on the need for researchers and academics to communicate more with publics beyond the specialist audiences that have, until recently, been the norm.

This language of “engagement” has been taken up ever more enthusiastically by funding agencies and universities, often alongside the concept of “impact”, the latter term having already become influential (and embedded in the logic of research governance) in the UK. However, in all this talk about “engagement” and public communication it seems that less attention is being given to the question of which academics participate in this process – who can make use of the opportunity to “engage”, and why.

For a start, it’s somewhat disingenuous to discuss the “responsibility” for academic public engagement without considering the risks that this involves, and for whom that risk is most significant  – i.e. most likely those already in marginalized positions in the institution and in society. The point about risk was not addressed explicitly in discussions I heard at the conference. In spite of the rhetoric about “impact”, the fear that many graduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) feel – and the anecdotal evidence of folks being told not to get involved in certain kinds of activities – suggests that “engagement” must happen on terms explicitly approved by the institution, if those involved are seeking academic careers. Grad students are not generally encouraged to become “public intellectuals”, a concept that regularly provokes critiques from those both within and outside the academy.

Not only was risk left out of the picture, but the discussion wasn’t adequately placed in the context of increasing amount of non-TT labour in academe. Those not fortunate enough to be on the tenure track still want to be (and are) scholars and researchers too; but it’s harder for them to contribute to public debates in the same way because they don’t tend to have a salary to fund their work, or a university “home base” to provide them with the stamp of academic credibility. I noticed at one panel there was also a discussion about tenure and academic freedom, and the argument was made that profs with tenure don’t speak up enough, given the protections they enjoy. Again, I think the more interesting question is about who gets to speak freely, with or without tenure, and why. Do all tenured faculty get to assume the same kind of “freedom” that someone like Geoffrey Miller does (or did)? What will happen to such freedom when the work of academics is further “unbundled”, as with the growing proportion of low-status contract faculty?

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