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This article first appeared in PR Week on 14 March 2018
Benjamin Disraeli said a University should be a place of light, of liberty and of learning. If you are currently working in a University, you might disagree.
Strikes over staff pensions have led to cancelled lectures and seminars. Students are both supporting the striking academics and calling for refunds on their student fees.
We have a new regulator – the Office for Students or OfS – described by Universities Minister Sam Gyimah as the biggest shake-up for higher education in a generation.
Then there’s free speech – an issue on which Universities cannot win, being castigated for not standing up against ‘no-platforming’, while being criticised at the same time for implementing the government’s controversial PREVENT counter-radicalisation strategy.
Throw in criticism of Vice-Chancellors’ pay and expenses, reporting (often misreporting) over ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’, and debate about sexual harassment and student mental health, and you have a perfect storm.
Just in case anyone thought this was a passing moment that would fade away, leaving the mythical ivory towers battered but unbowed, think again.
“Some in the sector see this as a sort of annus horribilis for higher education, a storm to be weathered in the hope of calmer times ahead… this is a mistaken reading…. We are once again experiencing the ‘winds of change’ in the university sector,” said Gyimah in a recent speech.
Of course, the media sound and fury hide another reality – a sector that is world leading and delivering major benefits to the country.
Our leading universities (of which Cambridge is one) top global league tables. According to Universities UK's (UUK), universities now support more than 940,000 jobs across the UK and – in the latest figures available – generated £95 billion of gross economic output in 2014-15.
Global reputation through academic endeavour is one thing. Being at the heart of a storm in a new social media world described by the Universities Minister as the “age of the student” requires a different approach to communications – one supported by well-resourced, professional teams.
There is still a big difference between the resources available to communications teams in the higher education sector and those in other parts of the public sector.
For example, it was only in 1987 that the University of Cambridge created its first press office. Before that, any journalist would simply ring up the Vice-Chancellor’s office for comment.
And internal communications – which did not exist at Cambridge as a central team until five years ago – are essential. Keeping internal stakeholders in the higher education sector informed and engaged has never been more critical.
Luckily, there are outstanding teams and individuals across the sector, as well as an increasing drive to improve skills and professionalism.
The need for skills has long gone beyond traditional media into online. Communications teams in higher education need the ability to work strategically across institutional silos to support a wide range of areas from profile and reputation to recruitment and fundraising. The need for advocacy as the regulatory regime shifts is also growing.
There are two things to take from this. First, universities need to invest in their communications teams. Second, there has never been a better time to work in the higher education sector.
Far from being a backwater, it is at the forefront of debate about the role of education, the need for new skills, the importance of diversity and inclusion, and the technological and societal changes we face.
Britain needs a higher education sector that meets the needs of its students and that speaks in a confident, compelling voice about the value of the teaching and research that thrive in our universities.
The communications teams are the ones who create that unique voice.
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