The 'joke' field with serious prospects

December 19, 2003

Media studies
Phil Baty reports on the fight to defend the image of a tarnished subject.

It is "sub-Marxist gobbledegook" taught by "talentless individuals", according to rightwing historian Roger Scruton. It is "vacuous theoretical convolution", according to former schools chief inspector Chris Woodhead.

Media studies occupies a uniquely awful place in the nation's consciousness. It is seen as a "joke" field researched by film nerds and TV-soap addicts, not serious academics. It can lay claim to being the original "Mickey Mouse" course.

If people believe what they read in newspapers, it was created as a degree subject by cash-strapped former polytechnics to exploit the naive and hopeless ambitions of sixth-formers dreaming of a career as a television presenter, film director or a journalist.

Things are so bad, says Tim O'Sullivan, head of the media department at De Montfort University, that the field should consider changing its name.

"I think it struggles to be taken seriously by the majority of the public.

Positive stories are rare, and the field is regarded with derision and suspicion in many quarters," he said. "There may be interesting debates about the continued advisability of operating under the media-studies flag given the tarnished nature of its reputation."

But public stereotyping belies much of what is happening on the ground. The subject has seen explosive growth. According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, numbers of first-degree students have more than tripled from 3,845 in 1995 to 11,780 last year. And staffing levels have kept up - almost quadrupling from 510 in 1995 to 1,820 last year.

Although the average A-level point scores of entrants to degree courses is a relatively lowly 15.3 (roughly equivalent to two Cs and a D at A level) compared with 21.2 for English students, the average has been stable for the past four years, Hesa says.

"Undoubtedly some institutions have exploited the popularity of the field by overrecruitment and underresourcing," Professor O'Sullivan said.

"Media studies courses for the past ten years have been regarded as convenient ways to hit recruitment targets. By and large, however, the quality of students remains good and I do think that they are now much less likely to be hoodwinked with unrealistic promises of career or fame."

Indeed, far from fostering unrealistic expectations of careers, the field is one of the best undergraduate course for getting its graduates on the career path. Official figures last year revealed that 72.8 per cent of media studies graduates find jobs within six months of graduating, compared with 65.1 per cent of all graduates.

A three-year study from Sunderland University, which invested £12 million in new media facility, found that media studies graduates were "enterprising self-starters who gain a wide range of jobs inside and outside the media".

But the achievements will not be sustained while they fail to convince politicians and the funding council that they deserve more support. As The THES reported in November, academics believe media studies could be devastated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's "disturbing" plans, out for consultation, to cut teaching cash for the subject by reclassifying it as the cheapest form of classroom teaching.

Barbara Cairns, head of media production at Lincoln University, said: "The proposals show a lack of appreciation of the real costs of the equipment, facilities and staffing levels required.

"A university such as my own, for example, has made a big investment in facilities such as television, radio and photography studios, edit suites, cameras and information-technology hardware and software."

For Martin Barker, head of theatre and film studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, the outlook is bleak: "The threat to funding is a really serious marker of not understanding, or even not caring about, the field."

And media studies is also struggling for recognition in the research stakes despite its recent achievements.

In the 2001 research assessment exercise, 425 researchers at 38 institutions were submitted. Two departments received the top 5* grade for research of international excellence - the University of East Anglia and Goldsmiths, University of London - and four departments received a grade 5.

While in 1996 six departments received the lowest grade 1, only two did in 2001.

The achievements, often in emerging departments in new universities, could be undermined by a lack of support from the research councils.

Sue Thornham, head of the media department at Sunderland, said: "The interdisciplinary nature of much research (in media studies) means that many research proposals fall uneasily between the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Board. It remains a real problem."

As the 2001 RAE panel pointed out, 31 of 320 full-time research students in the field at the time were funded by the ESRC and 13 by the AHRB.

"The anecdotal evidence is that such gross underfunding has significantly undermined the recruitment of UK doctoral candidates to most institutions, despite the numbers completing their degree in the period," the panel warned. <P align=left> During the past RAE, the field received £1.57 million over five years from the research councils, about the same as it received from industry sources. <P align=center> EXPLOSIVE GROWTH OF POPULAR FIELD

  <P align=left> 'Traditions of excellence are being established'

Natalie Fenton , senior lecturer in communication and media studies at Loughborough University's top-rated department of social sciences: "Many students come wanting to be [TV presenter] Cat Deeley, leave wanting to be [campaigning journalist] John Pilger but will settle for any job that will start paying off the debt. The beauty about media studies is the range of jobs students go to means that their horizons remain wide."

Peter Golding , honorary secretary of the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association and head of the department of social sciences, Loughborough: "Media studies never was struggling to be taken seriously by the majority, only by some over-publicised dissenters. It's been in the mainstream for 40 years. It is lively and acknowledged as a world leader."

Dave Hesmondhalgh , chair of the Open University's media studies course: "I think there is still tremendous enthusiasm about the subject. In my view, there is more excellent teaching and research in the field than ever before. But research remains underfunded, and there are serious threats to the adequate funding of teaching."

Anne Cronin , director of the Institute of Cultural Research, Lancaster University: "Media studies is one of the most exciting fields to teach and research in at the moment. Among fellow academics, its image as a 'Mickey Mouse' subject is changing. But politicians still use the discipline as a peg on which to hang various grievances about academia in general."

Maire Messenger Davies , reader in media studies, Cardiff University: "The public and the paymasters don't really understand the different areas encompassed by media and cultural studies, especially the very large component of the subject that is not about training."

Roger Laughton , head of the media school at Bournemouth University: "Ill-informed critics are still capable of winding us up and demoralising some of our students. But, thankfully, the debate seems to have moved on. And, as in any other relatively new area of academic study, traditions of excellence are being established."

Barbara Cairns , head of media production, Lincoln University: "The subject is not only here to stay but is central to the economy. It should have the same kind of future as some of the more established disciplines."

What do you think media studies should call itself? Join the Common room debate:
Taking the Mickey out of media studies


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