The Higher Education Policy Institute has just published “Mixed Media; what universities need to know about journalists so they can get a better press” by Rosemary Bennett. She notes that Universities are now under much greater scrutiny from the media. She argues that Universities need to accept that this level of scrutiny is similar to that experienced by other areas of public life, it will continue and probably increase.
Also, the media focus for Universities has shifted, following the imposition of fees, to include matters of consumer interest as well as policy e.g., stories covering the lack of teaching and risks to summer exams during the 2018 lecturers’ strike and actual lecturer contact time as against the fees charged to students.
She suggests that Universities, Vice-Chancellors and staff should become more involved in the broader national educational debates and be prepared to take on the individual risks of a higher public profile – such as appearing on BBC Question Time or engaging like Sir David Eastwood and Chris Husbands in the debate about scrapping A level exams in 2021.
She believes that Covid has given universities a fresh start in managing their public image and notes “The 2018 study for Universities UK by BritainThinks found members of the public rarely mentioned unprompted that research was one of the benefits of universities. It would be surprising if that had not changed as a result of the pandemic”.
There has been a tendency for universities to rely on Universities UK and the various mission groups to lead in these areas and for Boards/Councils not to become too involved. Often it is seen as a matter for the Vice-Chancellor and the senior team, unless the university individually becomes the subject of intense media scrutiny. However, it is worth considering whether the Board/Councils should be more involved due to the importance of the University’s brand and reputation.
Some of the questions that Boards/Councils might consider include:
- Should the criteria for the Vice-Chancellor role give greater priority to the ability and willingness to take on a role on the national stage? Do the roles of the other senior executives need to change to allow this? Have the senior team also a role to play in promoting the University?
- Does the University have a strategy or plan for its brand and reputation? How does the University encourage staff to promote the University and how is such a culture encouraged? What training is given? What metrics can be used to inform progress? What are its brand goals?
- Are there areas of brand or reputational risk that the University should consider e.g., the number of first class degrees, unconditional offers, fee refunds during Covid, freedom of speech and senior pay. Bennett notes these can also be opportunities e.g., Nottingham Trent decided to grant fewer firsts and Chichester was one of first to end unconditional offers.
- How should Boards/Council monitor the brand and reputation of the University? Should survey and other methodologies be used both nationally and in the local community? Bennett notes the importance of parents as a stakeholder group.
- To what extent are the University’s values and culture recognised by its stakeholders?
- Where the University does attract significant negative media interest – when and how does the Board/Council become involved? What are the arrangements for handling the situation?
The brand and reputation of a university are among its most important assets. As such, they should be safeguarded and promoted by the Board/Council. At the same time, they are one of the University’s greatest risks. The media interest is only likely to increase, Bennett’s recommendation that Universities become more outwardly focused and proactive is timely, leading to the question - Should the Board/Council be doing more?
Frank Toop MBE is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education governance.