Dons despair as students spurn science in favour of 'media studies'

Education/ fashionable courses
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The Independent Online
MEDIA studies - a subject either mocked or ignored by conventional academics 10 years ago - is sweeping British universities. Nearly 35,000 sixth-formers finishing their A-levels this week have applied for degree courses that they hope will get them into television or the press - far more than have applied for maths, physics or chemistry.

To scientists, the success of universities offering to introduce students to everything from music videos to quantitative methods of media analysis is a symbol of the country's change and perhaps its decline.

"I wonder if watching the telly stretches the mind," said Peter Saunders, professor of mathematics at King's College, London, whose department has been at the centre of attempts to raise standards of numeracy in Britain. "And I wonder if we should treat students as if they're customers and give them what they want to study.

"The real customer is society. If we forget that we might as well offer students courses in beer- drinking. I'm sure they would be popular."

Media studies academics regard such lamentations as cries from the past. They are convinced that study of the media is not just "relevant", to use one of their favourite words, but serious.

Their conviction is bolstered by the remarkable popularity of their courses.

In 1990, 5,855 people applied for degree courses in media studies, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Last year, 21,277 applied. This year the numbers have rocketed. There are 32,862 media studies applicants and a further 12,039 for communication studies courses.

Pupils wanting to take traditional science courses have remained unchanged, however, despite the expansion in higher education. A mere 26,416 want to study mathematics this year; physics and chemistry attracted 21,422 and 30,290 applicants respectively.

The popularity of media studies allows departments to be very choosy. At Loughborough University, where 600 have applied for 34 places, the department demands the equivalent of two Bs and a C at A-level, grades that would get applicants into many law faculties.

The Westminster Universityschool of communications is so oversubscribed that it is moving out of the city and building a pounds 30m department, the "biggest media studies centre in Europe", in suburban Harrow.

Its academics look slightly confused when asked what the point of it all is. Their practical courses offer students vocational training in video, radio, periodicals, public relations - every conceivable branch, in fact, of the media. About three-quarters of students find work.

Theoretical courses are served with dollops of Marx, Weber, Brecht, feminism, psychoanalysis and postmodernism. When asked how such learned techniques are used to analyse something as apparently insubstantial as the modern media, David Cardiff, principal lecturer at the school, said: "Well, you can analyse why Dallas was watched round the world and how different cultures interpreted it."

Does it matter how Dallas was interpreted?

"It matters a great deal if you are concerned with American cultural imperialism. Look, I simply do not have a problem about the intellectual relevance of media studies. They are just as important as English literature and probably more directly important in the modern world."

Away from the classrooms, others are not so sure.

The intellectual ancestor of today's lecturers, and a man to whom they constantly refer, is Richard Hoggart, whose 1957 book The Uses of Literacy was the first study to take popular culture seriously. He went on to Birmingham University to found what was in effect the first media studies department.

Like many parents, he is disappointed by the way his children have turned out. The section on media studies in his new book, The Way We Live Now, which will be published in the autumn, complains about "moral cretins" who are frightened of making judgements.

"I never suggested that the ephemeral and the serious were of equal worth," he said last week. "Too many people in media studies are simply fascinated by the media, especially TV. All the questions of what it's all in aid of seem to evade them. There is a terrible silence."

Some of Mr Hoggart's younger contemporaries have more worldly concerns. Brian Winston is director of the centre for journalism studies at Cardiff University. His post-graduate courses, providing intensive training for aspiring journalists and broadcasters, are very successful. But he worries about the undergraduates on media studies degrees and wonders if they will find work.

"I'm concerned that good teachers are forced to offer courses which do not provide the vocational training students need if they are going to get jobs," he said.

Professor Winston estimates that a course that ensures that a student is properly trained costs about pounds 5,000 per student per year. But most undergraduate media studies courses spend about pounds 3,000.

"It's not enough," Professor Winston said. "The fact is that the concentrated training you need for a job in the real world is very expensive."

To get the training required to have a hope of a job in broadcasting or print journalism, students have to go on to postgraduate courses. Most have to find the fees themselves because the Government will not pay and the media will not finance training directly.

The result is an increasing gentrification of the media, as graduates with access to money flood the market. Working-class accents in most "serious" newspaper offices are as hard to find as small egos, and a recent National Union of Journalists survey discovered that only one in 100 journalism students and one in 200 national newspaper journalists were black.

"I call it the Lucinda syndrome," said Professor Winston. "We have wonderful postgraduates who are eminently employable, but, boy, are they posh!"

Posh or not, the students keep on coming. Professor Winston is not always sure why.

"I suppose to people brought up on videos and televisions it seems relevant and glamorous," he said.

"And when all's said and done, at least there are jobs in the media, however difficult they are to find. There are no jobs in coal-mining."