On Message: Changing the story about higher education

Adam Batstone

Higher Education is a subject that is always in the news – and more often than not it’s bad news. So what can the sector do to improve its image and tell a more positive story?


Hardly a week goes by without more negative news about Britain’s universities. Whether it’s exorbitant vice-chancellor salaries and crippling student debt or striking lecturers and student mental health, universities have taken a bit of a kicking.

This edition of the MHP On Message podcast brings together a senior BBC education correspondent with the head of communications at the Russell Group to discuss why higher education often gets a bad press, and what can be done to resolve it.

Sean Coughlan is an award winning education correspondent for BBC News. He is also an author who has written widely about the UK education system.

Zena Elmahrouki is head of communications for The Russell Group, which is the umbrella organisation for 24 of the UK’s leading universities. Her interest in education policy led her to a job at Downing Street as an advisor to Nick Clegg in the coalition government.

They are joined by Nicole Martin, an Associate Director with MHP Communications, specialising in advising clients in the education sector.

The group looked at why the media appear to focus on negative issues including vice- chancellor salaries, tuition fees and industrial disputes rather than trumpeting the achievements of higher education, where the UK is an acknowledged global leader.

The consensus was that higher education communications teams could do more to think about how they engage with the media by means of partnerships or offering surprising stories which break with convention.

Too often the narrative around higher education is dictated by the question of money. Moving the agenda away from ‘who pays for universities?’ would go a long way to resolving the dilemma – should higher education be a business or a public service?

BBC News education correspondent Sean Coughlan and Zena Elmahrouki, Head of Communications at the Russell Group join Nicole Martin and Adam Batstone from MHP


MHP Director, Adam Batstone has a 25-year journalistic career working in newspapers, radio, TV and most recently the BBC News website. At MHP he helps clients to work with the media to ensure they get their voices heard.


On Message is edited by Nick Carter of Mixsonix Audio Production

MHP can help you plan and produce your own podcast – for more information email media@mhpc.comIf you have any thoughts or comments about this podcast do please get in touch via email: contact@mhpc.com

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MHP provides media training for many of its clients. If you would like to get more information about how MHP’s team of former national news journalists can help you prepare your media strategy contact media@mhpc.com.