Out to lunch on journalism

May 15, 1998

JOURNALISM ought to be one of Sir Ron Dearing's favourite higher education subjects. Its educators teach people to be well equipped for work; to contribute effectively to society; to serve the needs of a knowledge-based economy at local, regional and national levels and (we hope) to play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society. Above all, university journalism education measures its success by the employment record of its graduates.

Not surprisingly, the courses with the best employment records are popular choices for students; at City University last year we received more than 1,000 applications for the 30 places on our undergraduate journalism course. Unlike courses in critical theory, university journalism courses emphasise practical work: not just effective research, accuracy and meeting deadlines, but also an understanding of the audience for whom a newspaper or a television programme is written, an appreciation of the commercial dynamics of media industries - and the ability to avoid libel, confidentiality and contempt of court suits.

Employers and students expect high standards from university journalism education, and, in order to deliver those standards, each reputable department or school has its own ways of keeping in touch with the industry's fast-changing needs. At City, as at many other departments, every teacher is a professional journalist with wide-ranging contacts with the industry. For our teaching quality assessments last year, for example, everyone produced lunch logs to show how much regular contact each of us had with employers over the preceding six months.

But informal contact is not quite enough: like many other institutions providing professional education, we value the regular process of accreditation by effective organisations representing the employers who come to us for graduates, providing a dispassionate reality check on our teaching, our resources and our understanding of the needs of the industry.

For many years, the newspaper industry was represented in this function by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, which dealt with the accreditation of newspaper journalism courses in further and higher education, and also administered the national certificate examination system for post-entry trainees. But in recent years the industry has been expressing reservations about the NCTJ. The council no longer represents the national newspaper proprietors nor the main regional dailies and evenings effectively. It has not taken account of the increasing need for journalists to be multiskilled - to be able to work, like journalists at the newspapers increasingly associated with cable television stations, on a print story one day and a video story the next, or to be able to write equally well for a paper's Web site as for its news pages. The NCTJ's curriculum requirements still focus on the needs of a provincial weekly.

These reservations last year led one of the leading trade associations, the Guild of Editors, to publish a green paper on journalism education, which metamorphosed into a white paper proposing substantial changes in the pre-entry and post-entry training requirements, taking into particular account the need for multiskilling and the development of new media.

At the same time, the NCTJ and university journalism departments ran into a little difficulty of their own, with the NCTJ making new demands to participate in setting and marking university exams, a challenge to academic autonomy that caused six leading university institutions to tell the NCTJ they could no longer comply with its accreditation requirements.

Following a meeting in March, the NCTJ's demands were withdrawn for existing courses - but new courses were not to be exempt from the new arrangements. The Association for Journalism Education's executive committee believes that this inconsistency of treatment between "old" and "new" courses is unlikely to be acceptable to journalism educators, and the question now forms a major agenda item at the annual conference of the association, which takes place today at the Freedom Forum in London.

It is possible that the specific exam issue can be settled. But the general issue of appropriate accreditation remains open. The Guild of Editors' initiative was welcomed by journalism educators - Peter Cole, of the University of Central Lancashire, helped to write it - but it became clear at the guild's conference in November that editors and proprietors were unwilling to put up the funds necessary to translate the initiative into reality.

So there is a real vacuum and we do not have a simple solution; the fact that our broadcasting and periodical journalism courses are well provided for by their training councils does not entirely solve the problem. Like all good teachers, we welcome effective quality assurance, and we need the formal approval of properly representative industry bodies. We believe we serve our industry and our students well, and that we accurately reflect the requirements of employers and potential employees. What we want is a professional accreditation system that does the same.

Rod Allen is chair of the Association for Journalism Education, and head of the department of journalism, City University.

A Mickey Mouse degree? page 20

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