Flogging A Dead Degree

Universities are misselling careers in ‘industries’ that have no jobs to offer. How long before the scandal breaks?

Nick Cohen

Not immutable: Stephen King says great writers may be born but good ones are made (Stephen King CC BY-SA 4.0)

On the face of it, there has never been a better time to break into the arts, television, music or journalism. Look at the universities, and you can think that all the bragging about London being the creative capital of Europe, and British cultural dominance replacing British imperial dominance, is a simple statement of fact.

Our institutes of higher education offer training for every type of creative career.  You can learn how to act, paint and play classical music, as you always could.  But universities now train students for careers that no one imagined needed an academic qualification until recently. Every variety of print and television journalism is on offer up to and including sports journalism. (The pedagogues at the University of East Anglia have stepped forward to intellectualise this rough trade.) Every variety of film-making is covered too. Then we have courses on game design, game development, creative writing (both poetry and prose), animation, popular music (this at London’s Goldsmiths University), arts administration, children’s literature, creative and cultural entrepreneurship (“to commercialise on your creative and cultural practices and/or knowledge” — Goldsmiths again), musical theatre (Guildford  University offers both the singing and the dancing), and arts festival management (a niche occupation filled by sharp-eyed dons at Leicester’s De Montfort university).

As I learned journalism on the job, so to speak, I could sneer. Indeed, I find it hard not to sneer. But even this old hack must admit there is no harm in learning about any kind of work before starting it.

In his excellent guide on how to write, Stephen King scorned the idea that “writing ability is fixed and immutable”. Teaching had its place, if you recognised its limitations. He divided writers into four types: bad, competent, good and great. No amount of teaching could turn a bad writer into a competent writer, he said. Bad writers should give up and try something else. Equally, no teacher could produce a great writer. We cannot understand genius, let alone teach it. But it is possible “with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one”. And so it is, as anyone who has sweated to improve their prose knows.

I might complain that across the aptly- named “culture industries” managers have passed the cost of training to potential applicants. They no longer pick promising recruits and pay them while they learn. They expect the graduate to arrive fully formed and fully trained, and to work for nothing for months as an intern.

An outrageous exploitation of the young, no doubt, but the new system has its advantages. Pretty much anyone with a basic aptitude can now take a shot at a creative career. Statistics are hard to come by, but I found that between 2004 and 2012, the number of UK film students grew from 1,625 to 5,530 — a 240 per cent increase. Last year, meanwhile, 77 universities offered journalism courses which provided vocational training for jobs as reporters, editors, photographers and cameramen and women in digital and print.

Students may not appreciate it, but there is an advantage in not having to pay upfront for their education or on taking their chances with the ration system direct state funding would bring. “Student loans” and “student debt” are misleading terms. In reality, graduates must pay an additional tax only when their annual income reaches £21,000. If it does, they are liable. If it does not, the taxpayer, who funded their courses, must bear the loss. Today’s young have more chances to fulfil their ambitions than any generation in history. But here’s the rub. The true scandal in higher education is that only a minority, perhaps a tiny minority, ever will.

Degree misselling is just as widespread as financial misselling, but no admissions tutor is ever arrested, and no university is ever forced to repay the money it has taken from the taxpayer or graduate.  Because universities take no risks, they can recruit with abandon and condemn thousands of young people a year to disappointment.

Acting has always been precarious. By definition, only a few can find fame. Equity found that half its members earned less than £10,000 in 2013. Casting Call Pro, a website, found that just 2 per cent of actors earned more than £20,000 a year. These, remember, are drama-school graduates who are still working or trying to work as actors. Those who picked up their debts and left the profession weren’t covered.

In my own business, it is simply disgraceful that 77 universities are taking money for journalism courses when the chances of their graduates finding work are vanishing by the day. Without boring you with the gruesome details, no news organisation in the Western world has found a sustainable business model. Jobs are disappearing everywhere, and every journalist views the future with alarm.

Yet turn to the propaganda of the highest-ranked journalism courses in the UK and you will find only the patter of snake-oil salesmen. London’s City University assures potential customers that its “Journalism MA prepares you for a first job in newspaper journalism” and boasts about how well its graduates have done. No mention of the internet destroying reporters’ jobs. No warning that students’ time and money may well be wasted.

Westminster University says: “Our students have a very high success rate in gaining employment in the media industries, and recent graduates have gone to network radio, national newspapers and magazines, and major television companies.” I’m sure they have. But as the years go by, fewer will.  Cardiff University promises “to equip young journalists with the skills to start their careers in multiplatform newsrooms”. Just so. But how useful will these skills be as newsrooms shrink and close? Nowhere in all of academia’s exhortations to sign up and pay up could I find warnings of the risks ahead.

Nearly all my colleagues who have lost their jobs now teach on journalism courses. One told me he was not allowed to “depress” his students by telling them that, if they are looking for a paid job which will allow them to buy a flat one day and start a family, journalism is now about as reliable a career as blacksmithing or coal mining.

The absurdity of the creative industries is exposed by his position and that of so many others. People who lose their jobs in the arts and media discover the only work available is to teach students, most of whom will not be able to find work in the arts and media either. One day the same scandal that hit the banks will hit the universities, and it won’t be a day too soon.

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