It was cast as the original "Mickey Mouse" degree, but media studies lecturers are now complaining that their students are arriving at university ill-prepared for the academic rigours of the discipline, writes Rebecca Attwood.
Media studies has become a victim of its own success with so many pupils wishing to study the subject at school that there are insufficient numbers of qualified teachers to meet demand, a conference heard this week.
The knock-on effect is that students are arriving at university without the critical thinking skills they need for a media degree, according to research by Faye Davies and Oliver Carter from the University of Central England presented to the joint conference of the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association and The Association of Media Practice Educators.
Ms Davies, a media theory lecturer at UCE who made the presentation entitled Tackling the Expansion of Media Studies , said: "What we are really lacking from undergraduates is critical autonomy, the ability to bring critical skills to media texts.
"When students come to us, a lot are looking for the right answer and the right box to tick. It is difficult to get them to understand this is not what media scholarship is about."
The UCE media studies programme had had to be modified to include more emphasis on developing students' critical thinking and research skills, she said.
She said: "GCSE media uptake is up by 25 per cent in the past few years.
The problem is it is expanding so fast we haven't the specialists to fill that gap. There is no specific media PGCE, so there is no focused training in this area for teachers."
She said that English and drama teachers were being pushed into teaching media studies in schools and colleges.
"English teachers tend to be comfortable with print-based media, but when it comes to new technology such as podcasts and visual language, we have found they can feel very uncomfortable. I think educational policy needs to change. There should be more media-focused teacher training," she said.
Anna Kiernan, a senior lecturer in journalism at Kingston University, said:
"I would say there is some truth in these assertions. An ongoing challenge we have is basic skills. Even with good grades, some of our students'
English is not up to standard when they arrive at university, and so we provide an Academic Skills Centre and various exercises to up the entrance level standard.
"This means there's less time to concentrate on more abstract or complex concepts and ideologies. Students sometimes don't appear to be in the habit of reading when they arrive. Media studies' peak may have passed. I work in the fields of media and cultural studies and journalism and we are finding that journalism is now exceeding media studies in terms of applicants."
Kate Lacey, senior lecturer in media and film at Sussex University, said:
"While it's clearly preferable for students to be taught by subject specialists, I doubt if the problem with critical thinking is subject specific.
"I think if there is an issue - and it is a big 'if' because we do get students who can think critically - it is that there is a wider culture of league tables and testing, and that students are being asked to do less independent and critical thinking."
Statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service suggest the growth of the subject may be levelling off. Provisional figures for 2006 show that 8 per cent fewer students were accepted onto media studies degrees than the previous year.