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Education: So, you want a career in journalism?

A BA in Egyptology may be just as effective at getting you a job as a media studies course.
Aspiring students take note: new statistics show it may not be smart for you to opt for supposedly vocational degrees in media or design studies. These subjects have higher unemployment rates than traditional academic subjects such as languages or classics, according to data published last month by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Yet young people clamour to get on to media and design courses. For example, the BA Hons in multimedia journalism at Bournemouth University has 1,162 applicants for 62 places. Why are students flocking to such courses in the teeth of the evidence about jobs? The answer, it seems, is that the young are in search of glamour. They think journalism will be cool - however much practising journalists tell them to the contrary - and, above all, interesting. And they want to do something that will give them skills which might help in the job market.

Experts think that the information about the poor job prospects of some of the fashionable courses has not yet filtered through. Professor Alan Smithers, whose Centre for Education and Employment Research is moving to Liverpool University, believes that young people may not be receiving entirely accurate information. "It may be that the students are receiving very attractive brochures, leaving them with the impression that a degree in equine studies will enable you to spend your life working with horses or a degree in media studies will give you a job on The Independent or the Today programme," says Smithers.

Once students do cotton on, they may well desert the fashionable courses in droves, particularly now that they are paying the pounds 1,000 a year tuition fee.

If the latest figures from HESA are to be believed, they show unemployment at 11 per cent to be highest among art and design graduates. Then come media studies students with a 10 per cent unemployment rate. Students of humanities subjects do better - with an unemployment rate of just over 7 per cent, similar to the unemployment rate of that quintessentially vocational subject, business studies.

But there are problems with the new statistics. Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, says the figures on the jobs graduates go into after leaving university are "notoriously unreliable". He explains: "The figures are entirely dependent on people returning questionnaires to careers officers or whoever collects the data. Until you can get a method of tracking students by using some form of common identification number and a record of where people are working, for example, like the National Insurance number, you will never get a national picture."

Of course, not all media degrees are a passport to the dole queue. Degrees in media studies differ from one another. Some, such as Bournemouth's, are intensely practical, are approved by the industry's own training bodies and have impressive employment records - 83 per cent of graduates from Bournemouth's BA Hons in multimedia journalism find jobs within six months. Other courses are much more theoretical, concerned with analysing television programmes such as Neighbours and phenomena such as the reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Students should closely examine syllabuses and job records of the universities they are interested in attending.

The way in which the new HESA data has been interpreted is also a problem. All the attention has focused on the students who declare themselves to be unemployed six months after graduating. However, if one looks - as Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster, has done - at the graduates in jobs, a different picture emerges. As many as 74 per cent of media graduates are employed six months after leaving university, compared with a mere 54 per cent in humanities subjects. Many more humanities than media graduates opt to do further study and training. This points to media degrees being highly vocational, says Copland.

All of which suggests that the figures should be treated with caution. Some vocational degrees - particularly those concerned with computers - are undoubtedly a good bet for jobs. But you do not have to have done an IT-related degree to go into computing, just as you do not have to graduate in accountancy or law to get into those areas. And, if you are doing a defined vocational course, careers advisers say you should use your leisure and vacation time to develop as broad a range of skills as possible and to make yourself as interesting a candidate as you can to all employers. "You're much better off doing what you want to do," says Higgins. "You should go to university to enjoy yourself, to enjoy the subject, and if that happens to be media studies, great."