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Ten ways Times Higher Education can change the story

By Rob Cuthbert

Tips from an editor on how Times Higher Education can shift the negative perceptions of people in higher education to reassert its value to the sector.

Times Higher Education has faced a blizzard of negative comment over the past year or two. It has been exasperating to see the THE’s incredible work and achievements eclipsed by endless stories about university rankings. The result is that it has been easy – far too easy – for THE to be cast as part of the problem rather than a solution. How has this happened, and what can THE do to get back on track? These questions are unlikely to be answered at THE Live, where a two-day conference will culminate with the THE Awards. Here are 10 ways that THE might consider changing the story:

1. Remember why you do what you do

News media have attributes that many academics admire and respect; journalistic integrity cannot be bought, nor can a workforce that really is in it for love more than money. And yet at times they can appear unaware how powerful these attributes are and instead they scramble to be the poor relations of the commercial sector. “THE is the world leader in university data, rankings and content, with institutions, academics, students, industry and governments utilising the information to gain insight, inform strategic priorities, benchmark, assess and select higher education institutions.” Sure, the problematic (de)monetisation of journalism is largely the cause. But external factors can’t shoulder all the blame. Leadership, culture and self-respect all matter, too. Journalists’ primary mission is finding all the news that’s fit to print, with academic respect and economic impact spinning out from that. Focus relentlessly on excelling in these areas, and the private equity funds will follow. And if they don’t – well, it’s still the right thing to do.

2. Stop the civil war

One of the most damaging trends for UK higher education has been the multiplication of university league tables, creating a sense of “them and us” between people in HE and journalists who write about it. We know that rankings are inevitable, but they have created a debate on social media in particular, in which academics’ grievances are mostly not raised in toxic and personal terms, but they may still upset sensitive THE journalists. Many of the concerns that fuel this atmosphere are legitimate, but HE can see that the proliferation of rankings by THE have little to do with anything except increasing the demand for the THE’s data services. The proliferation has to stop. Replace it with a sense of collegiality and mutual endeavour, and that will be a big step along the road to THE regaining HE’s respect.

3. Demystify, demystify, demystify

I am not sure if private equity-owned news media realise this or not, but for those on the outside, they are very opaque organisations. What do they do? Who do they do it for? And how am I benefiting? Nowadays most people canardly believe in the outdated idea of a newspaper,  employing mostly journalists rather than a bunch of number-crunchers.

4. Don’t obscure the good work with fripperies

There are always ways to rationalise the creation of yet another set of university rankings, but to be blunt, they make you seem not interested in anything but reducing whole universities to one number. Do you need all of them?

5. Don’t be a troll

Do not waste time trying to tell people on Twitter who are oppressed by rankings-driven managerial metrics that they should rise above them, when you are the main source of the rankings that are fuelling – sometimes even causing – the oppression. We know that rankings, like sin and human weakness, are unavoidable; we’d just like the rankers to stay out of the pulpit and cut out the sermons.

6. Don’t be an ostrich

Facing up to a problem is sometimes uncomfortable. But it’s never not a good idea. The most significant blow dealt to the THE’s good name in the past couple of years has been the multiplication of rankings. And a significant compounding factor was the silence echoing back, as THE journalists chose en masse to put their heads in the sand. I understand their reasons: they felt there was nothing they could say that would satisfy their readers. But the row could have been defused much earlier with recognition that this wasn’t going to blow over as it had in the past, and with some proportionate responses from those with the most responsibility for rankings. Similarly, it is a mistake to dismiss all concerns as wilful nonsense – rankings inflation deserves serious investigation, so blanket denials are not the right response.

7. Do tell stories

And make them stories that real people in HE will connect with. THE seems obsessed with rankings. The data are always compelling, and it may well be that this is useful in selling more data consultancy services and more copies of THE. But did any university ever really improve its teaching and research after deciding its target was to become a top 10/20/50 UK university?

8. Value people, not rankings

I have lost track of the number of times I have seen another new ranking while reading a copy of THE. I understand why, but don’t be fooled: it is students, staff, teaching and research which really matter. Show us people, not numbers. Show us education, not metrication. Invest in people. They are the ones who count.

9. Accept that the world is changing – and that’s OK

Our higher education media in the UK may be one of the world’s best. But there’s also a sense when you travel around the world that the UK media are too wrapped up in selling data services and rankings and not as interested in education as they should be. Come back to the UK from a trip to Asia, and the debates about global rankings can seem stale and repetitive. Let’s not stagnate. Trying new things is rarely as bad as the naysayers would have you believe.

10. Don’t write articles that are just selling THE Live this autumn

The THE used to be one of the wonders of the world. Reading it should be a joy. That it isn’t for many in academia tells us that something has gone wrong. But it can be put right. THE needs to rekindle a sense of optimism and enthusiasm and find a way to change the story. Not write stories that are just puffery for another THE event.

With acknowledgement to the usually excellent John Gill, ‘10 ways universities can change the story’, THE 24 April 2019.

Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog.