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Margin Notes

Is media coverage biased in favour of universities over colleges?

Yes, says the president of George Brown College at June’s Worldviews conference.


The media are biased in their coverage of higher education in Canada, favouring universities over colleges. That was the contention of Anne Sado, president of George Brown College in Toronto, speaking at the Worldviews 2013 conference on media and higher education held at the University of Toronto near the end of June. “I’m not here to challenge whether university or college education is better,” said Ms. Sado. However, “I do feel there is bias around coverage between universities and colleges.”

Ms. Sado was speaking as part of a panel discussion, alongside University of Toronto President David Naylor and journalists Simona Chiose, education editor at the Globe and Mail, and Louise Brown, education reporter at the Toronto Star.

“I think there is an opportunity for the media to make sure there is a recognition of a much broader range of postsecondary options than perhaps there was at one point in time,” Ms. Sado said. “We have “two robust streams of education. Students choose their pathways based on many needs and interests. Some choose colleges, some choose universities.” At George Brown, she noted, 20 percent of students have completed a university credential and another 11 percent have some pervious university experience. “We’re told they come to use for our practical and applied programs that lead to jobs.”

And yet, “I feel the media do continue to emphasize universities in their reporting. There are far more experts from universities that are quoted when discussing many, many subject areas. I feel the perspective of colleges is often overlooked.”

Ms. Sado gave the example, among others, of Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, an “incubator” program for student-led digital media start-ups. That program has had “well over 100 media mentions” over the last year, she said. “We have a digital media and gaming incubator at our college – not mentioned once.”

She also cited the Globe and Mail’s “Our Time to Lead” education series last fall, which she said focused almost exclusively on universities. “It seems, in Canada, university has become the de facto term for postsecondary education.”

The bias “is systemic,” she continued, from media to guidance counsellors to parents. The media has a role to play “in informing the community about the viability of other options. … I know credibility has to be earned, but I think it is something that we have earned and yet it’s not being given its due.”

Louise Brown of the Toronto Star agreed the media are biased in favour of universities: “We are university trained. We’re more familiar with it.” But, she added, stories from the K-12 sector trump all other education stories.

Addressing Ms. Sado’s point about the media seeking experts, she noted: “Every day, the universities are very assertive about sending out, first thing in the morning, a list of experts to comment on whatever the issue is of the day.” She doesn’t see that from colleges.

U of T’s David Naylor, in his comments, did not address the bias question directly. He did say one the biggest challenges the media face is that their ranks are thinning out, making it difficult to cover many areas, including higher education. He also made the point that stories of university graduates who then go to college need some nuance. “I have met many U of T students who finished their degree and then went off to a one of our fine colleges for a diploma. They were adding, on top of a broad education, specific skills acquisition. And somehow, at least in Canada, it seems to be seen by some as a mistake. To me, it is actually a fantastic declaration for a lifetime of learning and accomplishment.”

Dr. Naylor also said that the current focus in the media and elsewhere on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and business disciplines needs some reflection. “This zeitgeist worries me. … So many of the issues we face are social. So much of what is bedevilling our world is the failure to appreciate our shared humanity. Cross-cultural and inter-faith tensions are a huge issue. And it just seems to me that we are turning away with respect to the social sciences and humanities at exactly the moment in our history when they have never been more relevant.”

Back to the main issue, during the Q&A session that followed, a teacher at George Brown College returned to the question of college teachers acting as media experts. She noted that university professors have academic freedom policies which allow them to speak their minds. But, “college teachers don’t have even a basic level of that enshrined in any kind of protective way like a collective agreement. … Even if I wanted to speak out as a public intellectual on issues in my area of expertise, I don’t have the privilege of intramural and extramural academic freedom to be able to do so.”

It’s a fascinating discussion. I’d be interested to hear readers’ views.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Bob LeDrew (@bobledrew) / July 22, 2013 at 10:27

    I believe that Louise Brown makes a very important point in terms of the level of aggressiveness shown by universities and by colleges in courting media attention by making experts available.

    And in a related point, while the issue of academic freedom may well be a valid one, as described by the George Brown teacher, I think her comments also point out a cultural issue.

    When I worked in university communications, most academics were eager (or at least open) to doing media work. There was a sense that it was their duty to do so (of course, there were always exceptions).

    In college comms, I found faculty FAR less open to doing media interviews. And I was asked several times by faculty “Why would they want to talk to me?”

    There needs to be a great deal of work done with college faculty to educate and motivate them to do media relations work.

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