The trendy travesty

New research charts the staggering growth in trendy degrees such as media studies. But are the critics right to claim they lead only to jobless graduates skilled in the semiotics of `Neighbours'? Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online
For some years commentators have wrung their hands about the rise and rise of media studies in our universities. A junk degree, they have called it, bereft of content and not much use to students who want to enter television, radio or newspapers or, indeed, the ancillary worlds of marketing and public relations.

Now, for the first time, education experts Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, and his colleague Pamela Robinson have charted precisely the dramatic growth in vogue subjects. Their report, to be published later this year, describes a staggering increase over the past decade of 1,787 per cent in admissions to design studies and a 1,538 per cent increase in entries to media studies.

Ten years ago fewer than 100 students were signing on for such courses each year; today, the annual enrolment number is about 1,500 for each subject.

What is worrying, given the vocational promise of such courses, is how difficult it is proving for graduates of these trendy courses to get work. Figures collated by the pair in their report for the Council for Industry and Higher Education, described exclusively in today's Independent, show graduates of design studies having more trouble than any other single group in landing a job. As many as 21.3 per cent were still unemployed six months after graduation. The next largest group was media studies graduates - 15.2 per cent of them were casting around for work despite their BAs.

"The implication is that media studies will lead to a career writing scripts for EastEnders or Coronation Street, that you will have the edge over students who have not done such a course," says Mr Smithers. "But there isn't this direct connection. By and large the media recruit on talent whatever the background."

What has led to this extraordinary growth? The answer can be summed up in one word: glamour. At the University of North London, where student numbers in film studies have doubled in the past three years, Professor Ken MacKinnon says: "People come here partly because they think it's an entry to film or television, but I don't think that's true. I have always tried to disabuse them of that. We have an academic course which doesn't supply you with the wherewithal to get into making films."

In the past decade student numbers have exploded as more and more people have seen a degree as a passport to better job and salary prospects. Universities - particularly the new universities - have quite literally cashed in on that trend. With funding provided for each student recruited it was in higher education's interest to attract more and more undergraduates.

What better way to fill the coffers than by setting up new, seductive and relatively cheap courses? Other fields that have enjoyed the same dizzying success as design and media studies are psychology and leisure and tourism. Psychology is, of course, not new. But its current allure is perhaps attributable to the desire we have to understand ourselves and others.

"Having slogged away at physics, maths and French, students think `Goodness, learning must be more exciting than this. Wouldn't it be grand to study psychology or media studies?' " says Smithers. "People are expressing aspirations for an exciting life and don't know the substance of what they're going into."

Universities acknowledge the dangers of recruiting students with stars in their eyes. Justin Arundale, media studies course leader at the University of Brighton, says he is always careful to inject heavy doses of reality in interviews with budding students.

Wendy Dagworthy, director of the fashion course at St Martin's College of Art, says: "What you have to instil in students is that it's not glamorous but hard, hard work. And it's not easy at all. It has its glamorous side, but it's a hard slog."

The portmanteau areas of media and design studies cover a multitude of more or less wacky course permutations and approaches. Under the heading of design studies, for example, comes visual art with social studies, heritage and landscape with educational studies, and heritage and landscape with theatre arts and performing arts. Media studies can be taught in an almost entirely theoretical and critical way, devoid of any technical or craft aspect, which is why it has become the butt of criticism. The philosopher Roger Scruton says: "It is very political with a clapped- out Marxist agenda and offering nothing except to destroy someone's prospects of honest employment."

At many institutions, however, media studies has a decidedly practical flavour. Take the University of Brighton. There students go on work placements for one month in their second year. In the first year they learn information technology skills, as well as about the information and media industries, media sources and media production. In the second year they have more choice and in the final year they write a dissertation.

The course leader Justin Arundale takes issue with Mr Scruton. It's important for universities to be critical of the media, he maintains. "The media are increasingly central to our society. They're one of the dominant, if not the dominant, modes of social and political communication and it's important for us all to adopt a critical attitude towards the information we receive."

The question, says Mr Smithers, is whether students would choose to study the new cool subjects if they had real choices. As it is, they know their fees will be paid by the taxpayer, which means they don't have to think as hard as they would if they were having to contribute. "I think there is a connection between the development of higher education and the funding of it," he says. His report for the Council for Industry and Higher Education will be sent to Sir Ron Dearing who is chairing an inquiry into the funding of higher education.

For Richard Brown, the council's director, the message to come out of the report is the need for companies to work closely with universities to ensure graduates are employable. "They need to get much closer together to produce graduates who are relevant for business," he says. That includes businesses seconding senior managers to teach in higher education and helping students with presentation skills.

Until the worlds of academe and work are able to communicate better, Britain will continue to train legions of unemployed journalists or, worse, hundreds of unemployed people schooled in the semiotics of Neighbours. In desperation the Government has offered incentives to encourage more students into technology and engineering. But they have not worked. Numbers studying these subjects have declined in the past few years. Would they go up if students' minds were concentrated by having to pay some tuition fees?