Communicators in education: we really need to get our shit together

By Posted in - Education & Pickle Jar Voices on November 9th, 2016 0 Comments

When I woke up on Friday 24 June, the little news alert that flashed up on my phone sparked a crisis of identity for me like few others I’ve worked through in my life. I wrote about it at the time, and many of those feelings remain true.

Through the summer I burned out, emotionally and physically, and had to take two months out of my role here at Pickle Jar Communications to re-energise and rediscover my own sense of identity and meaning in who I am and the importance of the role that I – and we – have to play in the world. Legacy is important to me, and boy do we work in a sector that enables us to have an impact and to create legacy. As communicators in education we don’t just have a job, we have a responsibility. No more has that been true than at this moment in time.

But as I wake this morning, 9 November, my sense of detachment with the apparent prevailing political sentiment in some major Western nations right now cuts deep. In my musings from June about Brexit, I reflected on how this isn’t merely a personal disconnect and challenge, but it cuts to the core of the sector within which we work – the education sector. Yep, I’m quoting myself here…

As someone who works in and with universities around the world, I too am wedded to the pursuit of intellectualism and expertise, to fact-based and rational decisions informed by research and evidence. This is a core value shared throughout the EU and hugely supported by funding, infrastructure and freedoms offered to us through that Union. And the result of this vote is not just an act of separation and nationalism, but above all else an act of anti-intellectualism. The anti-expert sentiment expressed by Gove and his sheep is not just worrying, it’s outright dangerous.

The outcomes of Brexit and the outcomes of the US Presidential election are, to me, symptomatic that the values that we almost universally hold true in the education sector – and more particularly in the higher education sector – are somehow misaligned or out of touch with the winning political sentiment. And that is a deep seated concern for us and the value that people hold for intellectual endeavour and expertise.

While Brexit rode on a wave of anti-intellectual sentiment, the US Presidential election adds a further dimension to the knife that we’re feeling twist in the side of higher education right now: the belief that qualification, knowledge and experience are not essential pre-requisites to prepare us for the important roles we’ll find ourselves in through life.

We’re witnessing a move towards a world in which:

  • Charisma and celebrity are deemed more important than qualification and experience
  • Hyperbole and rhetoric holds greater credence than evidence and fact
  • Gut feel outweighs informed and rational decision making
  • Shouting wins out over reasoned debate
  • Self-interest blocks out global mindedness and international mobility.

Each and every one of these themes sits to the heart of what we stand for and what we represent in higher education around the world. We are the custodians and ultimate proponents of:

  • Meaningful preparation and qualification for careers and roles
  • Evidence-based decision making and the pursuit of fact and truth
  • Rational decision making based on the synthesis of detailed evidence and insight
  • Reasoned and respectful debate and respect for the individual voice
  • The power of globalisation and international mobility of students, faculty and ideas.

We’re not the cause of anti-intellectual sentiment, but we have to start communicating in a different way if we’re to be part of the solution and protect our own worth to society. Now is perhaps the best moment in time for us to pause and reflect, what can we as communicators in the education sector be doing better? How can we address this?

We represent the voices of the institutions and the individuals whose values and views represent progress, innovation, evidence-based reasoning, fact, respect, and international mindedness. But those voices are not heard, or dismissed with expressions like “so-called experts”. That’s something that we – communicators and content strategists working with leaders in education – really need to get our shit together to address.

Political and economic influences that have guided developments in higher education in recent years – certainly in the time that I’ve worked in and with the sector – have forced us as institutions to fiercely compete with each other. In doing so, we start to look inward. While competition does foster progress, we perhaps focus more on what makes our institution unique, rather than what makes higher education, intellectual endeavour and research so valuable to society. That discourse is getting lost, it’s been drowned out, and we need to find a way through. We need to define a new voice for the value of education and intellectualism.

I ask to what extent increased competition between institutions has perhaps prevented us from having a single voice as a sector or – more importantly – a single voice as a system of values and beliefs that truly represent progress and internationalisation? The initiatives and bodies that do aim to represent the sector as a whole tend to be low-key, and campaign-based moments in time to help out a bit with recruitment or research funding. They don’t exist to define discourse and an approach that’s truly designed to turn a more deep-seated wave of anti-intellectualism towards enlightenment and belief in education, qualification and fact.

And as I listen to Trump right now talking about how we must “dream big and bold”, I cringe as I find myself echoing his language and saying that we absolutely have to start to dream big and bold as communicators. We have to start taking risks in our approaches to communications, content strategy and engagement. We have to stop being guided by group-think and risk-aversion, and let ourselves experiment in order to have our voices be heard. Because right now, the voices that speak against our sector’s expertise are winning out, and that’s not where we need to be. Every ounce of creativity and empathy that we have is needed right now, and the sector globally needs to pull together to really define a new discourse for intellectual endeavour and the value of expertise. I’m 100% in this to help and do everything I can. How about you?

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