The Globalization of Higher Education Media: Where Is It Headed?

Globe made of puzzle pieces

In an era of globalization, we need to improve global reporting, argues University World News Editor Karen MacGregor. Will this require more collaboration between higher education and higher education media?

There are interesting comparisons that can be drawn between higher education and the media. Both deal in information and ideas, and both are cutting-edge: universities in research and analysis, the media in reporting on unfolding events. And both resist changing themselves. This, along with the imperatives of business, could be why the higher education media found itself in the contradictory position of being at the forefront of globalization, through vast communication networks, while being slow to respond to the globalization of higher education itself.

For decades, universities and colleges have forged ahead with internationalization, described by Australian academic Brian Denman as the “conduit” for the globalization of higher education, which he sees as a convergence of educational systems and ideals designed to meet the needs of world knowledge and societal advancement. The media trailed and flailed in higher education’s wake, understanding the immense changes and challenges afoot but largely failing to react effectively to them.

Is this really the case? Does it matter? It is instructive to look at why it is important to report on higher education at the global level, how higher education coverage has been globalizing—or internationalizing or denationalizing—and what the future might hold.

The observations here are confined to English-language niche higher education media interested in an international audience, rather than the mass media or national specialist media. This is because only English publications so far have targeted a global audience, English being the lingua franca of global higher education. The publications are The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed in the United States, Times Higher Education in Britain, the international University World News (of which I am the editor), and International Higher Education, the quarterly newsletter of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

The role of news media in disseminating information are well established and understood. In higher education, national media complement formal channels of communication within the sector and between higher education, stakeholders, and policy-makers. The mass media does this by linking higher education to the public (and thus to stakeholders and policy-makers), while niche higher education newspapers do it by connecting people working or interested in the sector to information about each other and to new developments and debates.

This role also exists at the international level, whether the sector is higher education or commerce, tourism, or sport. Indeed, the increasing internationalization of commerce drove the “one world” phenomenon of globalization, which combined with an information and communication revolution to globalize the media. Reporting on the global political economy is understood by media to be important to national companies and governments. Reporting on global higher education is important to universities and colleges and education departments. Reporting on soccer does not end when a national team jets off to play abroad.

The news media views its roles as reporting on events, issues, and current affairs, stimulating debate, and serving the “public interest” in various ways, such as disseminating information it sees as important to people (disease outbreaks, election results, and so on) and “speaking truth to power”, the enticing concept that allows media to demand accountability from the rich and powerful.

Through these activities, the media influences agendas in most fields of human activity. In terms of higher education, former U.S. university president Thomas Ehrlich has pointed to shared responsibilities: “Like higher education, journalism is in the business of shaping its public as well as responding to it. Both institutions play crucial roles in making democratic societies viable: their activities are critical if public deliberation is to work at all under modern conditions.”

In the developing world, the importance of disseminating information about higher education was recognized by an expert group, the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA). It argued in one of its foundation documents that linking research to “advocacy” was one way to solve the problem of policy decision-making based on “strong convictions, weak evidence.” Limited research is “ignored as policy-makers are made aware, through various distribution channels, of the latest developments in Europe and the United States, while there is little or no sharing of, or debate about, what can be learnt from policies and practices in Africa.” It saw the media has having a strong role in the dissemination of evidence and forged a partnership with the University World News Africa edition.

The importance of the media to higher education was highlighted in the 2008 OECD report, Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society, which described the dissemination and use of knowledge as one of four major missions of tertiary education in contributing to socio-economic development. It argued that access to information and evidence encourages rational debate and consensus-building on reforms and policies. International comparisons in media reports could raise public awareness of the need for change, and ideas generally perceived as reasonable gained the support of public opinion, especially when ideas are promoted by the media, and can “be used as a basis for policy change and educational reform.”

At the very least the media recognizes that its coverage should contribute to an understanding of higher education worldwide for readers in a sector that has 2.5 million international students (a number expected to rise to 7.2 million by 2025), hundreds of thousands of academics involved in international research and networks, and thousands of universities with partners abroad. However, as Thomas Ehrlich warned, with increasingly commercialized universities, public responsibility sits uneasily alongside the business mission of most newspapers.

THE INTERNATIONAL HIGHER EDUCATION MEDIA

In July 2010, Kris Olds, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the GlobalHigherEd blog, published an article titled “Are We Witnessing the Denationalization of the Higher Education Media?” He wrote that the denationalizationof higher education—“the process whereby developmental logics, frames and practices are increasingly associated with what is happening at a larger (beyond the nation) scale”—was continuing apace.

But it was only recently, “at a relatively late stage in the game, that the higher education media is starting to take more systematic note of the contours of denationalization…From a quantitative and qualitative perspective, we are seeing rapid growth in the ostensibly ’global’ coverage of the English-language higher education media from the mid-2000s on,” Olds wrote.

One of the technical contributors to this expanded reporting was the shift from print to digital publishing, which enabled higher education newspapers to reach a potentially far bigger and more geographically distributed audience at low cost. This advance was behind the launching of Inside Higher Ed in 2005 and of University World News in 2007.

THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

The Chronicle, America’s largest higher education newspaper, was founded in 1966 as a weekly. By last year, the Washington D.C.-based paper had 325,000 readers of the print edition and 1.5 million unique visitors a month to its website. The paper launched an international news section in 1979 and since then has produced quality reporting on higher education around the world, although these stories were relegated to a back section “ghetto” of two to three pages.

In 2008 the paper decided to “seek out global opportunities,” International Editor David L. Wheeler wrote. It pumped US$2 million into launching a web-based global edition in June 2010, which offered some free and some pay-for reporting on “the increasingly internationally interconnected world of higher education.” The Chronicle has expanded its network of correspondents and its reporting of higher education abroad and introduced a “WorldWise” blog written by “globe-trotting” academic leaders.

As with most specialist higher education newspapers, The Chronicle is preoccupied with its own country, which is appropriate, since the overwhelming majority of its print readers are in the United States. Its international coverage has grown but remains U.S.-oriented, often written by American journalists abroad and often quoting U.S. academics and involving U.S. institutions. Still, The Chronicle is a strong example of growing global coverage.

INSIDE HIGHER ED

Inside Higher Ed was launched in January 2005 by former editors of The Chronicle. The first major, fully digital, English-language higher education newspaper, it is free and publishes an emailed Daily News Update with 90,000 opt-in subscribers and an active news website that attracts more than three million page views per month.

The paper started off with an overwhelmingly U.S. focus, but by 2008, Scott Jaschik, the editor and a co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, told me, international reader numbers were expanding rapidly. Overseas readers appeared primarily interested in finding out about American higher education and having their advertising reach “American eyeballs,” as Jaschik put it.

This meant there was little pressure on Inside Higher Ed to expand its reporting on higher education internationally, but the paper decided to go this route, and in 2010 began reporting more on global higher education issues. It forged a partnership with Times Higher Education that allows re-publication of each othe­r’s articles and pulled in new globally-oriented blogs. But like The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed’s international reporting remains U.S.-oriented.

TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION

Times Higher Education (THE) in the U.K. was launched in 1971 as a weekly print newspaper. In the mid-2000s it was sold by News International to investors and, in 2008, it was re-launched as a magazine. Last year THE had a print circulation of 28,000 and a readership of around 60,000, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute. It claims more than 100,000 online unique users a month.

THE had a strong international section, but against the backdrop of higher education’s internationalization, it made the astonishing decision in 2007 to shrink global reporting and fired all but a few of its international correspondents, focusing its international news on the U.S. and Brussels, with some global snippets gleaned from the internet and a column about global issues written by guest academics abroad. There is also some international reach through its feature and books sections.

Probably in response to The Chronicle’s international upscaling, THE International was launched in July 2010, offering free access to many articles on its website and a subscription to the weekly emailed international edition.

UNIVERSITY WORLD NEWS

University World News, a weekly, international, online higher education newspaper, was launched in October 2007 by specialist education journalists based in a dozen countries. Most of them were former correspondents of Times Higher Education who found themselves without an outlet when that newspaper ditched its correspondents. The reporters were convinced there would be interest among academia worldwide in a truly international newspaper, written by journalists who came from the countries and regions they covered and understood, with no national or regional “filter” to skew articles towards particular interests.

Two dozen (mostly) journalist founders set up a company in the U.K., investing their own money and offering their work for free. The newspaper is fully virtual, with no bricks-and-mortar offices, and now comprises a network of four dozen journalists in more than two dozen countries in all regions. University World News decided to be free, in order to facilitate easy access to anybody interested in higher education. Today, the paper has around 30,000 registered readers and, in the six months to the end of February 2011, it attracted a monthly average of 83,700 visitors to its website and 710,000 page views.

The newspaper provides news reports, features, links to articles from other newspapers, and a commentary section in which academics and professionals worldwide debate key higher education developments and issues. University World News reports on the whole spectrum of higher education, from world-ranking universities to institutions in more marginalized parts of the world, the aim being to enhance higher education communication and understanding globally.

It runs international-comparison reports, which feature articles from different countries on various issues. Another focus is the internationalization of higher education, including the recruitment and retention of international students, international research, and institutional partnerships.

INTERNATIONAL HIGHER EDUCATION

International Higher Education (IHE) is a quarterly publication of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the U.S. Launched in 1995, it aims to provide critical analysis of key issues and improve understanding of tertiary education developments around the globe. The publication comprises short analytical reports by academics from all regions and sits between the news media and journals. “We are concerned about the world and do not see ourselves as an ‘American’ publication,” says CIHE director Philip Altbach.

IHE has a print circulation of around 4,000 and an electronic circulation of about 2,000. In recent years, Altbach has worked to grow the newsletter’s reach and influence by publishing in different languages and regions. IHE is now published electronically and in print in Chinese, by the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and appears electronically in Russian, published by the Independent Kazakhstan Quality Assurance Agency and available across the Russian-speaking area. The English edition is distributed by Deutsche Universitatszeitung in Germany, which has a circulation of 25,000. This has made IHE the only higher education publication to appear in multiple languages on a regular basis at a global level.

Altbach is currently in negotiations to produce a Spanish edition. “The idea is that publishing in other languages will foster more cross-pollination of ideas, since reading in one’s own language makes information, especially technical or academic jargon, easier to digest. We feel that people will want to read us in their own language if at all possible,” he says.

GLOBALIZATION OF THE MEDIA?

English-language higher education media were slow in responding to the globalization of higher education because, as businesses, they saw financial risk and because of their slowness to change—an ironic tendency, given the media’s obsession with reporting on change. Since globalization has been a major development in higher education in the past decades, the media’s lack of response represents an editorial “silence.” However, the internet has made newspaper dissemination cheaper and easier and has opened up potential worldwide readership markets that were difficult to reach before.

In recent years, higher education newspapers have expanded their international coverage and placed it higher on their strategic agendas. University World News was launched with the specific aim of responding to higher education’s globalization, and International Higher Education has been extending its coverage through translation. In Germany and other non-English countries, such as Mexico, higher education publications are also taking a growing interest in international higher education.

But does this picture represent the globalization of higher education?

Kris Olds indicated that the higher education media has been denationalizing, “ramping up their capacity to disseminate digital content, facilitate and/or shape debates, market themselves and build relevant multi-scalar networks,” taking approaches reflecting their different structures, resources, and audiences.

I would argue that publications have followed two very different approaches. The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed and THE have ”denationalized” their coverage, increasingly reporting beyond the nation, as Olds pointed out. They have “responded to core readerships that are increasingly interested in what is happening worldwide,” Altbach said. University World News and International Higher Education are global in their basic missions and represent globalization of the higher education media.

In the coming years, reporting globally on higher education is likely to increase, in tandem with the global convergence of higher education systems. It is possible that the niche media has bitten off more than it can chew and that truly global publications will prove to be only marginally commercial or even unsustainable, hindering international growth and coverage. But there is no turning back for a media sector that must respond to the needs of its readers, even if belatedly and inadequately; otherwise even domestic readerships will be at risk.

Olds pointed to problems such as the linguistic bias towards English, the need for more analysis, and possible conflicts of interest in, for instance, a newspaper running university rankings. He questioned the possibility of doing justice to the global: “For we are all situated observers of the unfolding of the global higher education landscape…grappling with how to make sense of the denationalizing systems we know best, not to mention the emerging systems of regional and global governance that are being constructed. All that can be done, perhaps, is to enhance analytical capabilities, encourage the emergence of new voices, and go for it while being open and transparent about biases and agendas, blind spots and limitations.”

But maybe we can do more. Both the media and higher education have public responsibility roles, but they do not work together systematically in ways that could help to better fulfill these roles. A case could be made for increased collaboration between the specialist media and higher education—particularly researchers of higher education—to improve global reporting and information dissemination in ways that could benefit both.

Karen MacGregor is the global editor of University World News. She is a former foreign editor of Times Higher Education in London and has written regularly for international news publications such as Newsweek, the Sunday Times, the Independent, and the Globe and Mail.