Journalism courses: why some are a con

Everyone wants to be in the media, it seems, and some universities are exploiting the gullible
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The Independent Online

The A-level results have been declared; the usual suspects have droned on about grade inflation and the end of the gold standard; places have been confirmed for those who made the grades; and the phone banks in the clearing centres have sweated with the influx of calls. Now calm is descending for a week or so, as those with places contemplate their university careers.

Approaching 5,000 of these will be studying journalism in one form or another, or enrolling for media studies (the critical study of the products of journalism so often derided as a "Mickey Mouse subject" by the Daily Mail). That is far too many, of course. There will be many more graduates than there will jobs. I reflect from time to time, when I am told the number of applications for our journalism degree course at Sheffield (850 last year for 65 places), that we are moving towards a situation where all young people want to be journalists, which could be taken as the end of civilisation as we know it.

Lest you think I am biting the hand, let me emphasise that I believe in trained journalists and journalism as a university subject, when it is well taught and relevant to employers' needs, which is not always the case. Good journalism is hard to do, and despite what some old hands will tell you, does not usually come naturally. It needs to be nurtured, encouraged, informed; and it needs a range of knowledge and skills, from interviewing to note-taking, from researching to writing, from law and ethics to political organisation, which have to be taught. In past days all of this was acquired in the workplace through apprenticeship to experienced journalists. Now this infrastructure seldom exists, and anyway, profit-hungry publishers prefer the taxpayer or aspiring journalist to pay for their training before they seek a job.

My concerns are about quantity and quality, about taking advantage of under-informed sixth-formers and those who advise them, about prejudice and nepotism. According to UCAS (the central university admissions service) there are 681 university courses featuring journalism at 67 institutions.

The largest number of such courses, 117, is offered by Chester, with Roehampton listing 82 and Sunderland 79. These crazy numbers are achieved by mixing journalism with other subjects to produce, for example, BA Religion and Culture and Journalism, BA Journalism with Media Studies and Drama, BA Fashion and Brand Promotion and Journalism, BA Journalism with Creative Writing (no smart comments) and BA Human Resource Management and Journalism.

Those who enrol on such courses thinking the degree will lead them into some specific branch of journalism such as travel writing, theatre criticism, religious affairs or fashion (I do not know what human resource management journalism is) should be warned that journalism is not like this. I interview a large number of applicants who talk only of sport and popular music. I tell them newspapers, radio and TV recruit those who have the basic reporting kitbag. Specialist jobs usually go to those who have developed as generalists, or to those who have practised the speciality, like sports writers who have been sportsmen.

So why do all these courses exist? Because universities, particularly those in the bottom half of the league tables, know that the word "journalism" attracts attention, is fashionable, and will bring in students. The expression "bums on seats" is universally used.

I worry too about the dynastic tendency in journalism, which has moved way beyond the Dimblebys. How frequently I see familiar national names on application forms. These people have grown up immersed in the trade and meeting the people. They have had access to the work experience opportunities gained by mum or dad having a word with so-and-so. They have been able to write while still at school the piece in the national paper about bullying/drugs/under-age sex/binge-drinking/anorexia/intimate jewellery. Such experience is influential in getting a place on the best courses, then a job.

I worry about journalism becoming the preserve of the affluent middle classes, because they have the connections, they have the confidence and they are less intimidated by student debt. Top-up fees, despite the bursaries, will frighten those from poorer backgrounds. Those who take on the debt will be less willing to take on unpaid work (or internship) after graduation in the hope it might lead to a job. Those who accept or prefer life in regional journalism must come to terms with much lower pay than the starter teacher, police officer or nurse, despite student debt of more than £20,000.

As well as being enjoyable, journalism is tremendously demanding, requires great intelligence as well as tenacity, scepticism and originality, and is important, as those who exercise power over us get better and better at media manipulation. We need quality journalists, and these will only be produced from quality courses, not contrived courses offered only to meet recruitment and revenue targets.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield