Telum Talks To... Pola Lem, Asia Reporter, Times Higher Education
Please tell us more about Times Higher Education and your role at the publication.
Times Higher Education is a UK-based magazine and website covering goings-on at universities around the world. Now called THE, for decades it was known as the Times Higher Education Supplement, affiliated with The Times.
I was very excited to join THE in October 2021 as its Asia Reporter. Nearly a year in now, I can say it’s a great gig. In my stories each week I cover a broad patch, from western and central Asia as far east as Japan. I also lend a hand with our Russia and Ukraine coverage, as I’m the only Russian-speaking reporter on staff. For the most part though, the big Asian Higher Education sectors are my main focus – China, Hong Kong, India, Japan and Korea. I monitor what goes on in those places, whether there have been any changes – university mergers, significant shifts in student mobility, a crackdown on plagiarism – that indicate things might be headed in a different direction. I’m especially keen to hear about threats to academic freedom, cases where scholars fear repercussions simply for expressing their opinions or doing their research. While I usually focus on countries further east, it’s been especially gratifying to report on the situation at universities in Afghanistan, to tell the stories of scholars facing persecution from the Taliban.
What types of content and topics are you looking out for this summer in Asia?
Regardless of the time of year, the stories we’re drawn to are ones that are developing and look like they could have an outsize impact on the Higher Education sector, stories that address issues which are of interest to academics globally on topics such as career precarity, inequality, academic freedom, etc. To take a recent example, I wrote a piece on the impacts of Korea’s higher education minister stepping down from her post and concerns that universities could be left in the lurch even as they face frozen student fees and dropping enrolments. If there’s an issue or trend happening that’s affecting a particular country, I want to hear about it. Even if it doesn’t immediately turn into a news piece, I still want to hear about it – it’s helpful to know about changes, since they become context for future stories.
Apart from covering governance and policies, what trends are catching your attention?
We tend to run shorter hard news pieces as well as slightly longer in-depth policy stories looking at what’s happening in particular sectors. We also publish fairly lengthy feature stories which take a deeper dive into particular issues. A recent feature I wrote was about whether things are changing for women in Japanese academia, which is notorious for a lack of women in academic positions. Outside the news team, our opinions editor, Paul, is constantly on the lookout for good op-ed ideas, and our THE Campus team is keen for pitches that offer advice to academics.
Any top tips for communications professionals who might want to make a pitch?
It’s difficult to offer a pithy answer to what exactly makes a good story, but there are a few sniff tests: Is something likely to be of interest to our audience? Is it genuinely different and new? Is it just a niche story or does it tap into broader trends for the sector and across the world?
While it’s the aim of PR teams to make their university looks good, my aim is to tell a good story. I’m more likely to express interest in a pitch if it looks like it helps illustrate a broader trend or say something insightful about the situation in universities. If you want me to write about why your university received record applicants to its maths department this year, tell me why I should care. Try to pre-empt some questions in your pitch. How does this compare to last year? How unusual is this for maths? Is it happening at the detriment of other majors – or at more institutions? Why do you think it’s happening? Could quality of students go down? The more information – and the more specific information – you give up front, the more likely your pitch will be successful.
While some of our stories are read by the general public, many of our readers come to THE because of their jobs as researchers or university administrators. So another test of a good story is, will it help someone do their job better? Usually, that means stories which have a broader relevance, across countries and academic fields.
A final pointer: When you’re pitching us, it helps if you give us a bit of time. If I get an email at 4pm letting me know that embargo on a press release lifts at 12am that night, that’s not particularly helpful. Having advance warning helps us ensure we’ve got a good balance of content for our magazine and newsletters.