A Picture of Higher Education

There is an iconography connected with Higher Education (don’t worry, this isn’t another piece about Cecil Rhodes).  We have a sense of what a university looks like – that’s been conditioned by hundreds of years of tradition, whereby people have tended to build universities to look like universities.  In England, images of two particular universities dominate, and picture editors have long used them alongside stories.

Something has changed though.  Every news story now has an online version that needs an image.  I have no data on this, but I also think that in general the bulk of higher education stories have a clear focus on students. One way you can be clear you have a picture of students is to have them in academic dress – and stock photos of gowns and caps have always been used. Often these are taken from a US agency – sometimes clearly done as a photo shoot (tip – if the gown is zipped up – it’s almost certainly an American photo).


But in the last year, one image has come to dominate, now almost to the point of ubiquity.


Here it is illustrating a story about Australian graduates in the Guardian.

pic 2

Here it’s linked to the Green paper in the Telegraph

pic 3

Here it was used for the Autumn Statement in the Independent

pic 4

It was used for the Times‘ splash on plagiarism (paywall)

pic 5

And it was used to illustrate a BBC story on UCAS data in Northern Ireland.

I’m sure that you get the picture.  Once you notice this, you keep seeing it everywhere.  I asked the Press Association about it.  The photos are from Portsmouth University’s graduation – the red alongside the purple in the hood showing a science degree.  The success of the photo is clearly because the students are anonymous, their gender assumed but at the same time it doesn’t suffer from the problems that beset the pictures that grace stories about A level results.   I wonder whether the three graduates know how widespread this picture of the back of their heads is?

Although we haven’t seen the end of the use of photos of the Radcliffe Camera standing for all of UK Higher Education, it’s pleasing that an aspect of the diversity of the sector is now represented in so many stories.

More photos from the Portsmouth shoot can be seen here



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