Taking the Mickey out

Sally Feldman on killing off 'soft option' media studies.

January 24, 2008

Get out your flick knives and unpack your pistols. We're about to do battle again. In the latest skirmish in the education class wars, some Russell Group universities are warning applicants to avoid taking "soft" A levels. The attack is being led by curmudgeonly Cambridge, whose list of undesirable subjects includes dance, film studies and music technology. In other words, they're dismissing as second rate the subjects they don't teach - in one go reinforcing the bias against state schools in favour of the elite, as well as drawing a scornful line between the traditional universities and the newcomers.

There are no prizes for guessing which subject tops the "safe" list. This new move is the latest in the long-established blood sport of media studies-baiting. And it's not just the old, traditional universities that have it in for the subject. It's equally hated by the press. Journalists who spend so much of their professional lives intruding and probing don't much like it when they're the ones being scrutinised and assessed. They love to quote the story of the eminent media studies professor who was invited to spend a day at a national newspaper. He was bemused by the almost miraculous process whereby a flurry of agitated phone calls, barking editors, scurrying reporters and frantic subs finally resulted in the next day's edition pumping out of the presses in the early hours of the morning. "Well, it works OK in practice," he conceded. "But it could never work in theory."

And in the academic land of media studies, that theory can be infinitely flexible, ranging from the rugged heights of socio-political analysis to the flamboyant shores of cultural studies, with rampant postmodern jungles of discourse analysis, hermeneutics and textual deconstruction. So rival scholars tend to dislike each other even more than they mistrust the practitioners, who in turn despise them.

Maybe it's the word "studies" that arouses suspicion, as it's so often attached to the new interdisciplinary degrees and their mix of theory and practice. Though it's not always clear what the difference might be. My friend's son who's just achieved an A at sports studies GCSE explained that practice meant playing football. And the theory? That, he said, meant knowing the rules of the game. You know where you are with a theology degree, but once it becomes religious studies you can't help wondering what defines practice. Flaunting a burka? Getting circumcised? Or maybe you have to go the whole unkosher hog and walk on water while turning it into wine. Which would neatly shape up as a transferable skill.

In some quarters, though, the word actually confers academic respectability. Times Higher Education recently reported the furious reaction of senior academics at the University of the West of England to a proposal from Sir Howard Newby, their now departed vice-chancellor, to change the name of the degree in journalism studies to straight journalism. This, they argued, was an attempt to replace a theoretical course with a - watch it, nasty word coming up - "vocational" one.

This hovering anxiety that the drive towards jobs is somehow tarnishing academic principles masks a kind of high-level defensiveness. It's no accident that media studies graduates are more likely to progress to relevant jobs than those who study English or history. They are acquiring skills and experience as well as academic education. While their public school chums doing PPE at Oxford are still stuck with lectures, seminars and tutorials, they are making films, designing fashion, creating music, negotiating, pitching ideas and selling their work. No wonder the ivory tower brigade is getting nervous.

On the other hand, they have a point. Once it may have been exciting and innovative. Now media studies is commonplace. Between 1997 and 2006, the number of media studies undergraduates rose by 344 per cent. And the courses are so disparate that the title is becoming meaningless. Some are all theory, some mainly practical. Quite a few make exaggerated claims about their facilities while in reality driving cattle trucks of freshers through a maze of edit suites and mixing desks with limited time and pressurised technical help. So it's hardly surprising the Higher Education Funding Council for England has reduced the media studies weighting to the point where our income no longer covers the true cost of delivery.

Yet it's this cocktail of creative, technical and theoretical education that is the hallmark of the best media studies courses. On our BA at Westminster, for example, students can choose pathways in journalism, television, public relations or radio. The remaining 50 per cent is theory, common to all of them, and taught by a team of internationally revered scholars.

It's served us well until now. But we've finally decided the time has come to submit to the inevitable and abandon that troubled tag of media studies altogether. In future, we'll have separate degrees for each practice-oriented subject, still underpinned by a substantial core of theory but without the Mickey Mouse connotations.

I've had it up to here with defending, defining and resting on the laurels of media studies. Instead of being a vague, debased catchall, the term should be reserved for purely theoretical degrees, operating like any other humanities discipline. You should be able to do it at Oxford or Durham, or even Cambridge, without the fear that it may be sullied by any association with technical training or - gasp - jobs.

Westminster was the first to offer a degree in media studies. So now we're going to be the first to chuck it out. It's not so much dissolution as reformation. Not so much a killing as a glorious rebirth.

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