While the press was busy abusing media studies, its graduates were busy getting jobs in the press, writes Tony Tysome
The irony of the situation does not escape most media studies academics: as a rule, they can expect to get a bad press. Ever since the first communications, cultural and media studies programmes were set up in the 1970s, they have been the focus of criticism and ridicule from all sections of the media, particularly national newspapers.
With the recent publication of research findings analysing what graduates do after completing their degrees, the critical bombardment has increased. The findings appear to support the view that media studies degrees are not valued by employers and fail to prepare students for work.
Figures published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the Higher Education Careers Services Unit show that six months after completing their courses, nearly 11 per cent of media studies graduates were unemployed, compared with an average of 7 per cent for all degree subjects. Of the 72 per cent who got jobs in the United Kingdom, 15 per cent entered media-related occupations, while more than 10 per cent were working in unskilled jobs. Only about 3 per cent went on to take a higher degree.
The evidence seems to back the belief expressed by former education secretary John Patten that media studies courses are "a Disneyland for the feeble-minded". But in the face of support for further research from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, media studies leaders are fighting back.
Signs of a backlash came last month when film-maker David Puttnam publicly condemned an article in The Sunday Times that belittled a media studies course at Coventry University. Puttnam said that media studies "should be at the heart of any educational system that claims to equip its citizens to deal with the complexities of the 21st century".
John Downey, head of communication, culture and media at Coventry, says institutions running media courses need as much high-profile support as they can get. "There is a feeling that academics in media studies are regularly misrepresented by the media. It has been something people in the field have had to come to terms with." Downey admits that Coventry's BA media studies degree got low grades when assessed by quality watchdogs in 1996, but notes that more recent quality checks have given many media studies courses top marks.
Nor has negative publicity put students off. Coventry continues to attract about 550 applications a year for just 90 places. Downey says the programme has a good track record, with 50 per cent of its 90 media graduates finding media-related jobs.
Similar arguments are made by the Standing Conference on Cultural, Communications and Media Studies in Higher Education. Its three-year study showed media graduates had a slightly better chance of finding employment than graduates in other subjects.
Peter Golding, chairman of the standing conference and professor of sociology at Loughborough University, says: "Media studies students are sought after by employers because they can demonstrate a high level of generic and transferable skills."
But Alan Smithers, director of the centre for employment research at Liverpool University, is sceptical. He argues that courses in astrology or pornography could probably be designed in such a way as to demonstrate the development of numeracy and communication skills. "The growth in media studies has partly been due to higher education responding to demand at a time when it is increasingly difficult to fill places in subjects such as physics. But you have to ask yourself whether it is enough simply to respond to demand. I suspect some of the courses, especially in further education and the new universities, do not give the students a platform for a job in the media," Smithers says.
The British Film Institute survey of 4,000 16 to 19-year-old students, half of whom were expecting to study media in higher education, reported: "There can be no question that media studies is a highly demanding subject. It requires students to become familiar with a wide range of critical theory."
Cary Bazalgette, the BFI's principal education officer, says: "It seems to us that critical criteria that are not applied to other parts of higher education are applied to media studies. It is all part of the suspicious way this country looks at the media."