A Mickey Mouse degree?

May 15, 1998

Marya Burgess examines the persistent prejudice in journalism against media studies

If you want to be a journalist, do a physics degree or do zoology," advises Tim Finch, the BBC's regional political correspondent for the Southwest. "Don't do media studies. News editors don't take seriously three years spent deconstructing Neighbours."

Today media degrees proliferate. Their popularity among undergraduates hungry to work in what is perceived as a glamorous industry makes them a valuable source of income, and the new universities have been particularly fruitful in the genesis of such courses. Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show that in 1995-96 8,000 students were doing degrees where 50 per cent or more of the course was directly media studies. But how valid a passport into the industry are such degrees - at undergraduate or postgraduate level?

Finch himself studied government, followed by a postgraduate diploma in radio journalism at Falmouth; Juliet Morris, co-presenter of 999, and Mathew Amroliwala of BBC News were among his contemporaries. When he graduated "about ten years ago", "broadcast editors were of a certain generation - they'd all worked on newspapers and didn't think much of anyone who hadn't. They certainly didn't respect radio courses; I've been sent to knock on a murderer's door, just to prove I could."

According to Finch, the current bete noire among employers is the media and communications undergraduate degree. Colin Harrow, deputy managing editor of the Mirror Group, agrees. "We take trainees first on the strength of their cuttings and second on their interview. Their degree is not totally relevant, but we prefer a general arts/humanities degree to one that's specifically journalism - they tend to be Mickey Mouse. How, when you've never worked as a paid journalist, never doorstepped, can you have a degree in journalism?" As for postgraduate diplomas, "We don't turn down people who've done postgrad courses, although we prefer people who haven't. We're looking for self-starters, like the Exeter University graduate who was the local newspaper's university correspondent."

At The Guardian, acting executive editor Chris Elliott has a higher opinion of the postgraduate route, but not the undergraduate one. 'I'm not aware that The Guardian has taken on anyone in the past three years with a BA Hons in journalism. We take on people with a diploma in journalism from City University or the London College of Printing. But 60 to 70 per cent of our recruitment is poaching those already in Fleet Street or those in good regional jobs."

According to Angela Phillips, who runs the MA in journalism at Goldsmiths College, this recruitment by "the old boy network" is a major problem for aspiring print journalists. "Contacts are crucial in newspaper journalism. If I have students who haven't been to Oxford or Cambridge, I can at least introduce them to people who have."

The Goldsmiths course has been running only four years and does not have accreditation from the National Council for the Training of Journalists, the organisation that represents newspaper employers. More established postgraduate journalism courses, such as those at City University in London and at the University of Wales, Cardiff, are accredited by the NCTJ, though recently difficulty has arisen between universities and the council.

Late last year the NCTJ wrote to universities saying that it wanted to participate in setting and marking postgraduate exams. The council was unhappy at the tendency in some universities to set academic rather than vocationally based exams, including, for example, questions such as "discuss the law of contempt". The reply from six leading universities was swift. "Universities can't let outsiders set and mark exams. We responded as a group saying, if you insist, we'll have to withdraw from our arrangement with you," says Rod Allen, head of the journalism department at City University.

After some negotiation, the NCTJ modified its demands, asking instead merely to see questions post-exam and for the universities to incorporate its criticisms when designing their next set of exam questions. It has warned, however, that new courses will have to let the council set and mark exams.

The council's modified proposal will be discussed today, when the Association for Journalism Education (AJE) holds its first AGM. It is unlikely that members will approve such inequitable arrangements. The problem appears to be the impossibility of marriage between academic excellence and vocational training. Yet Allen, who is also chair of the AJE, cites a successful accreditation relationship with the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, which discusses university courses, checking standards, but does not demand to set and mark exams. "It follows the pattern of accreditation throughout higher education, as should the NCTJ. We are professional practical training courses. The difference is one of principle - that higher education runs itself."

The argument raises the question of how appropriate is the notion of outside professional bodies accrediting courses within universities? Peter Golding, chair of the Standing Conference on Cultural, Communication and Media Studies in HE, regards accreditation as a double-edged sword. 'There is an obvious appeal to students, but it undermines the university's autonomy, restricting the range of courses available." According to Angela Phillips, the NCTJ provides a narrow training, aimed at local newspapers. "We're providing training that's intellectually stimulating - our students learn about broader issues than on a narrow, skills-based course. Bright postgrads are not stretched by NCTJ exams."

At The Guardian, Elliott acknowledges that the NCTJ qualification "in my experience doesn't figure largely in the thoughts of national newspaper recruitment". But at the Rochdale Observer editor Brian Beal still rates NCTJ accreditation. "We tend to recruit from NCTJ courses. They're tried and tested, we know what's taught, what calibre the candidates are."

The Newspaper Society has been considering setting up its own system of accreditation, and Skillset, the industry training organisation for broadcast, film and video, has suggested a generic accreditation for those working cross-media.

Far from creating unemployable graduates with unreal expectations of a media career, a 1996 survey by Wendy Monk at Loughborough University showed that cultural, communication and media studies graduates were marginally more likely than other humanities graduates to be employed six months after graduation. And the British Film Institute's Industry Tracking Study shows that of its 500 subjects employed on the creative side of television, 25 per cent of those under 30 have a media degree.

Yet the "deconstructing Neighbours" pejorative associations persist and even as more and more BA degrees stress the vocational component of their courses, so the scope for professional criticism expands. Nottingham Trent University's broadcast journalism degree is advised and assisted by a consortium from ITN, BBC, GWR and Carlton, but a Radio Nottingham journalist tells of a graduate arriving "unable to make a simple package" (edit together interviews and script into a coherent audio feature). The world of journalism is a hard-bitten one. It does not suffer poseurs gladly.

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