In the contemporary “audit society” (Power 1999), scrutiny, evaluation and control are prominent means of governing institutions, organisations and professionals (Dahler-Larsen 2011). The field of Higher Education is no exception. Under the umbrella of New Public Management, different evaluative activities are linked to and promoted by developments entailing increased marketization and privatization of public welfare in both Europe and beyond. Within such a neo-liberal agenda, HE is increasingly conceived as a form of private good (Englund 1996), which positions students as consumers and quality evaluations as means to assist, account, regulate and even fortify these relationships. The media is an important actor in this context, aligned with a public mission to scrutiny and at the same time providing powerful “interpretative frameworks for our understanding of society as a whole” (Hjarvard 2013:3).
In 2011, Sweden introduced a highly debated evaluation framework for assessing quality in HE focusing on results and student outcomes (Segerholm et al 2014). Implementing this framework led to Sweden being excluded from ENQA, European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, of which Sweden originally had been one of the founding members (Segerholm & Hult 2015). Among other things, the Swedish HE evaluation framework did not consider HEIs internal quality assurance procedures. It only focused on student results and outcomes, which was criticized by ENQA and turned out to be an infected issue in the Swedish domestic debate (Lindgren & Rönnberg 2015).
The evaluation framework targeted programmes of study that could lead to the award of a first or second-cycle qualification and resulted in a final overall grade: Very high, high or inadequate quality. The lowest grade meant a follow up by the Agency, with the possibility to revoke the entitlement to award degree qualifications (UKÄ 2014). The evaluations in full, and not only the final grade, were then made public on the Agency’s website. Needless to say, media reporting on such evaluations are of course ‘high stakes’: Attracting future students are vital and the HE institution’s (HEI’s) reputation are under potential threat, depending not only on the actual outcome of the evaluation, but also - importantly enough - on how the outcome is reported and represented by the media and thereby transmitted to the wider public and thereby to different HEI stakeholders.
This paper is interested in exploring media-policy interactions in the governing of Swedish higher education. More specifically, the paper aims to describe and analyse local newspaper reporting on the results of national quality evaluations of study programmes. The paper will initially a) map the attempted framing of the evaluation results made by the HEIs, via website announcements and press releases from both the HEIs and the evaluation agency UKÄ, and secondly b) analyse if and how these framings from the HEIs are (re)presented by the local media. A central question concerns to what extent local media is reinforcing or even promoting the representation attempted by HEIs, or if it is challenged and how this can be understood. Theoretically, the paper draws on literatures related to media-education governing interactions, including a) work of governance and governing (Clarke 2015; Bell et al 2010; Clarke & Newman 2009), b) literature conceptualising the relationship between media, society and policy/politics (Thorbjørnsrud 2015; Hjarvard 2013; Strömbäck 2008) and c) literature more specifically targeting the media in the context of education as a policy field (Rawolle 2010; Thomas 2009; Anderson 2007; Gewirtz, Dickson & Power 2004).
Four HEIs are studied in this paper. The cases have been selected as a part of a wider research project (Segerholm et al 2012) to represent different overall outcomes in the national evaluations (share of study programmes judged as “inadequate”) and different institutional characteristics (University or University College, old established institution or younger). In brief, U1 is a large old university with several faculties and subject areas that overall did well the evaluations on an aggregate level, U2 is an old and specialised university with one faculty and mainly professional programmes that did not do as well, U3 is a comparably recently established university college with mainly professional programmes that did well in the national evaluations, and U4 is a comparably recently established university with both professional and academic programmes and courses that overall did not succeed very well in the national evaluations. Thus, the cases are characterised by different contextual conditions as well as different outcomes of the national quality evaluations. This paper is based on the following empirical sources: a) the four HEIs’ webpages and their records/archives of press releases etc. b) articles from the media database Mediearkivet, using search terms such as the HEI name, evaluation agency name and so on, and c) press releases and evaluation reports from the responsible national evaluation Agency UKÄ. This study also benefits from data collected within the wider research project, encompassing for instance interviews with vice chancellors and senior management at faculty level, providing additional contextual understandings of the cases. The data is coded thematically and analysed by qualitative content analysis (Bergström & Boreus, 2005).
The findings empirically illuminate some of the interdependencies when high stakes national evaluation and measurements, PR strategies from the HEIs and media coverage meet and intertwine. The results indicate that mutually reinforcing processes may be at play, in which for instance favorable ‘branding’ of the HEI is amplified by supportive local newspaper reporting. This paper and its preliminary findings suggests that such interdependencies need to be further unpacked and critically discussed in relation to their possible constitutive effects (Dahler-Larsen 2012).
ECER 2016, European Conference of Educational Research, Dublin, Ireland, August 23-26, 2016