Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Universities and the Media, Part 1: What They Say About Us

Last week I attended The WorldViews Conference on Media and Higher Education, which ran from the 16th to the 18th of June, 2011 in Toronto. I was able to spend the full three days at the conference, and was lucky to meet face-to-face many of the people with whom I’d already chatted on Twitter (notably, Mary Churchill and Lee Skallerup), and whose articles I had read in the press or academic journals.

I made a Twitter list of conference Tweeps, based on tweets using the #WV2011 tag. I also wrote a live blog during the sessions I attended at the conference; here are the links to my rough notes from day one, day two and day three of the conference, if you're interested in seeing the content in more detail. There's an archive of tweets from the conference (created by Caitlin Kealey) available here.

The conference addressed an array of issues including the effects of international rankings on university governance; the role of science journalism; the relationship between academic experts and journalists; the continued under-representation of expertise from women, people of colour, and members of developing/Global South countries; and, of course, the nature of media coverage of higher education.

What exactly does current (mainstream) media coverage of post-secondary education look like, and why does this matter?

One of the primary organising themes in media coverage of PSE is that of the value of education, usually its economic value (as measured by the additional income generated for individuals from a PSE credential). The question of value is usually posed as one of whether a degree is “worth it”—“it” being the cost of tuition and living expenses, or in some cases the debt that a student may incur if s/he cannot pay up-front. I've even addressed this theme a number of times here in my blog.

Advocates of the continuing value of PSE tend to argue that average post-graduation lifetime earnings justify the rising short-term cost of a university education, and/or that the non-monetary benefits of PSE should be recognised. But the chorus of critics has begun to drown out these optimistic (and often over-simplistic) arguments. Now that so many people are receiving university degrees, in an increasingly unstable global economy, there's no "guarantee" that going to university will land you a job, let alone help you become "upwardly-mobile". Since living costs and tuition are increasing rapidly, the calculation of "risk" and "reward" in higher education becomes more of a focus. More students are taking on loans, which increase the risk involved (one needs to be able to repay one's debts from the additional income generated later).

Some coverage also focusses on how undergraduate students are "cheated" by a university system brimful of over-privileged professors who do very little work for high pay, and who would prefer not to have to deal with students at all. The university is already perceived as an arena for the elite, always somehow disconnected from "real" life and work, and such myths are reinforced by articles like this one from The Weekly Standard.

The assessment of value has also been applied to graduate education, and there's a raft of commentary on the futility of the PhD, particularly in the Humanities. The “ponzi scheme” image is invoked as a means of highlighting the relationship between the "production" of new PhDs and the (proportionally) shrinking number of tenure track academic positions available.

The latest critiques link higher education directly to economic tropes, invoking concepts such as "sub-prime education" (a comparison between sub-prime mortgages in the United States, and student loans) and the idea of higher education as an economic "bubble", popularised by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

News media articles, blog posts and think-tank reports are joined by books that represent not merely criticism but a "crisis literature," like the infamous Academically Adrift in which the authors claim that universities are not performing well enough in their educative role (i.e. students are not "learning" anything), and even the more recent Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education from James Côté and Anton Allahar in Canada (both of whom also co-authored Ivory Tower Blues). While these books contain many valid critiques, and they do "stimulate [public] debate" as their authors usually intend (Côté & Allahar, 2011, p.3), the critiques are often presented in a sensationalistic or reductionist way.

Along with the many public arguments made about the failings of universities to educate students, there is a parallel if more specialised thread of critique. Often found in the business section of newspapers, this argument invokes "innovation" and commercialisation as under-developed in Canada--that universities should play a more effective (economic) role in their research and development capacity, too. It's worth noting that this criticism has been levelled at universities, and at Canadian industry and funding councils, for decades (Dufour & de la Mothe, 1993, p.12).

In a second post tomorrow, I'll take a look at the implications of some of these criticisms and the assumptions underlying them, as well as some of the reasons why media coverage of universities is important for students, faculty, and parents, and for politicians and policy makers.

Reference: Dufour, P. & de la Mothe, J. (1993). The historical conditioning of S&T. In De la Mothe, J. & Dufour, P. (Eds.), Science and technology in Canada (pp. 6--22). Harlow, UK: Longman.


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