How media coverage about universities and Gaza is impacting perceptions of the higher education sector

 

Over recent weeks, the sensitive and emotive issue of the conflict in Gaza has spilled onto university campuses around the UK, mirroring the polarisation of response in the nation generally. While communication teams have been working hard to maintain balanced and inclusive relationships among on-campus communities, the media has shone a spotlight on tensions between student groups and the opinions of academics with a strong personal point of view.

For some universities, this issue has become a reputational challenge as well as a pastoral one. In the grand scheme of things, based on a traditional approach to measuring volume of coverage, the volume of articles about this issue may seem relatively low. Nevertheless, the level of interest among media with large audience sizes means that it will inevitably colour perceptions. Metricomm’s audience-centric media analysis reveals that the size of media audience for coverage relating to universities and the conflict in Gaza has grown steadily since the Hamas attack in October and Israel’s subsequent military response.

We know that putting this kind of issue into context is important. Our job is not to tell universities that they have a problem; they know this only too well. Instead, we want to help communication teams answer the questions that senior leaders are likely to ask about the impact of this coverage on the interested audience. What is the audience likely to be taking out of coverage about universities currently? Are the political issues overshadowing other topics that normally dominate coverage about universities? Are all universities being affected to the same extent or are some at higher risk of unfavourable judgments being made about them?

Metricomm has analysed online media coverage for UK universities between September 2023 and February 2024, to reveal the strength of association with political issues and non-political topics across the sector. To make it easier for universities to assess the impact on their audience relative to their peers, we have grouped the universities as Russell Group, Oxbridge, non-Russell Group and New Universities.

Key findings from the analysis are:

  • Political issues around the conflict in Gaza have largely displaced other political topics associated with universities in online media coverage, including Trans Rights and Free Speech

  • The education-focused topics typically most strongly associated with universities, for example Research and Teaching, remain present in coverage visible to the interested audience. However, the media agenda has made political issues highly visible in influential online publications, which is drawing attention away from other topics universities would prefer to be associated with

  • The emphasis for content about the political issues is slightly different for the various types of university

    • The Russell Group universities are currently most strongly associated with Israel, Jews and Protests. They are also more strongly associated with Islamophobia compared to other university types

    • New Universities are most strongly associated with Racism, Protests and Human Rights but they also have stronger levels of association than many of their peers with a range of minority groups, including Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ+

    • Oxbridge is also strongly associated with Israel and Jews, but also more strongly associated with Gaza and Free Speech than other type of university

    • Non-Russell Group universities are most strongly associated with Jews, Israel and Racism

If you would like to explore the media impact of these issues on your university in greater detail, please contact us using the form below or by emailing gareth@metricomm.com to request a copy of the full report. We are also able to provide bespoke analysis of the audience size, named media and topics most likely to be affecting perceptions of your own institution, including trends in association with key topics over time.