Communicating About Higher Education

The Worldviews Conference in Toronto last month focused on higher education and the media. Organized by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and other groups, the event considered how information about higher education is communicated—we don’t often think about how higher education is portrayed to the public and to policymakers, or for that matter even how the academic community learns about what is going on in the ever more complex world of higher education.

There are two parts to this story and both are important. The media are themselves undergoing a revolution due to the role of the Internet and the resulting impact on traditional outlets such as newspapers and television. In general, there are fewer reporters focusing on higher education at a time when interest in this topic is growing worldwide.There are many variations by country; in many developing countries, the mainstream press is full of stories about higher education. I counted a half dozen higher education stories in a recent issue of The Hindu, a major Indian national newspaper with a print circulation of several million. This level of coverage is typical of many developing countries. In contrast, the New York Times might print one higher education story a week, if that. This contrast probably reflects the great public interest in higher education in India.

Politicians and the public learn about higher education from the media—not often from the higher education community directly. What they learn is sometimes skewed toward sensational news and occasionally reported by journalists who are not well informed about higher education and are without support for in-depth research. For example, recent debates about the value of a college education in the press took snippets of data from a book questioning the economic benefits of postsecondary education without reporting the fuller, more nuanced story. This of course is a serious problem since the media often shapes public opinion—often to the detriment of higher education.

How information about the increasingly complex and globalized world of higher education is reported to the academic community itself is also of great importance. In recent years, several excellent sources of information have appeared to report and interpret trends. Two publications with a specifically international mission are University World News and International Higher Education—one more academic, one more journalistic—both provide news and analysis from a global perspective. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, both US-based, and Times Higher Education in the UK are probably the largest publications aimed primarily at the academic community itself. Several other countries have newspapers or other publications that focus on higher education. The Internet is increasingly important as a source of news and analysis about higher education. All the publications mentioned here are available on the Internet, and several, such as University World News and Inside Higher Ed are exclusively web-based.

The most influential publications with global impact are, not surprisingly, in English. This is problematical as the focus tends to be on the English-speaking academic systems.

The Toronto meeting focused needed attention on the complex issues relating to how the media considers higher education and how higher education is reported. It highlighted the complexity of the issues and the stakes involved for the future of higher education. Underlying the discussions were the dramatic changes taking place in the media globally and the difficulties of sustaining informed reporting on many key issues.


Philip G. Altbach

Philip G. Altbach is J. Donald Monan, S.J. University Professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. He was the 2004–2006 Distinguished Scholar Leader for the New Century Scholars initiative of the Fulbright program, and in 2010 was an Erudite Scholar of the Government of Kerala in India. He has been a senior associate of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and has taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Harvard University.

Altbach coedited the International Handbook of Higher Education. His most recent books is World Class Worldwide: Transforming Research Universities in Asia and Latin America, Leadership for World-Class Universities: Challenges for Developing Countries and Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution.