Universities are conning students by accepting them on journalism courses when they have no realistic prospect of working in the profession, a senior academic has suggested.
Tim Luckhurst, professor of journalism at the University of Kent and a former editor of The Scotsman newspaper, told the Association for Journalism Education’s annual conference in London last week that there was “an element of fraud in journalism education”.
He later told Times Higher Education that his view was based on personal experience, plus the testimony of editors, students and fellow academics “who complain about the standard of students that they’re forced to take”.
“It’s an unspoken truth, which everyone knows, that far too many people are being accepted whose lack of academic ability means it is implausible that they will ever have a career in journalism,” he said. “We need to be a lot more honest. We have a duty to be candid.”
While Professor Luckhurst is allowed to choose able candidates for the course he offers, many of his colleagues “are working under a cost pressure that doesn’t allow them to be selective”, he said.
He interviewed 260 applicants for 25 places on the journalism course at Kent.
“Every single one wants to be a journalist. They’re not doing it to learn transferable skills: they want to be reporters,” he said.
He also suggested that some journalism courses were not worth taking, even on the basis that they provide transferable skills. “Students would be better off doing a degree in history or politics that does not pretend to have a direct vocational outcome,” Professor Luckhurst said.
He added that “if a course is not accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), it’s not worth doing”, although he excluded postgraduate courses such as City University’s MA programme from this rule.
The professor also suggested that some universities are failing to make it clear to students that courses in journalism studies do not train them to become journalists.
“Some universities, such as Cardiff, are very honest, but others are not so overt in making the distinction,” he said.
Adrian Monck, head of journalism at City University, said: “There are something like 150 journalism courses in the UK higher education sector right now. There’s big student demand for them. But an undergraduate journalism degree is no more likely to get you a job in the shrinking employment pool of professional journalism than a law degree is to get you into a top chambers.
“Will it increase your general employability? If the programme is well taught, well resourced and well supported – yes. Will it allow you to compete for jobs where numeracy commands a premium? Probably not.”
He added: “The attraction of journalism as a career choice – even in today’s climate – means employers are able to select not merely from the very best undergraduates, but from the very best postgraduates, too. NCTJ accreditation counts for very little against an outstanding record of undergraduate achievement and a postgraduate qualification.”
The NCTJ currently accredits 15 degree courses.
Joanne Butcher, chief executive of the NCTJ, said: “The vast majority of courses are not accredited because they do not meet our standards.
“I don’t think universities should be selling the dream of becoming journalists to students who do not have the potential to develop the necessary skills.”
Several academics at the AJE conference had complained that their managers were forcing them to accept as many students as possible, she said.
Mick Temple, Professor of Journalism & Politics at Staffordshire University, and chair of the Association for Journalism Education, said: “There is undeniably pressure on academics to maintain student numbers but I would dispute Tim Luckhurst’s assertion that journalism educators are misleading students about the nature of the courses they offer or the difficulties of getting a journalism job. Should we confine journalism training, as Tim argues, to those with three A grades at A level, preferably in Politics, History and English? That would not appear to be the best way to encourage the diversity to which he claims to aspire. Many great journalists would have failed at his first hurdle. We should be seeking to enable as many as possible to achieve their aspirations while remaining realistic about the job opportunities in a profession that has always been tough to enter.
“The idea that any university course – whether in journalism or in a more traditional subject – will not provide its graduates with ‘useful transferable skills’ is, frankly, risible. All university courses provide graduates with a range of skills which will be useful in the job market, including the ability to research, analyse and communicate information in a clear and coherent manner.”