Thousands of students are being misled into believing inadequate media studies courses in colleges and universities will qualify them for jobs in broadcasting, top industry recruiters are warning.
Broadcasting professionals and the official industry training body claim young people are lured on to courses with false hopes of television and film careers at a time when jobs are rarer and less secure than ever.
Strong concerns are being raised over the proliferation of media studies, now the fastest-growing course subject in Britain, with applications up 54 per cent last year. The Higher Education Statistics Agency shows just over 4,823 students were studying on first degree and postgraduate media courses last year in colleges and universities.
Broadcasters are now calling for an accreditation system to allow the industry to single out courses offering genuine preparation for a media career. As the struggle for work intensifies, some in the industry are even proposing a cap on the number of training places.
Further Education Funding Council inspectors acknowledge some colleges are ill-equipped to offer comprehensive media studies courses, but insist most provide a high quality of teaching, with some boasting outstanding facilities. However Ed Boyce, head of training at Southampton-based Meridian Broadcasting, claimed many students taking courses in good faith were being "misled". He said: "Courses are advertised as being relevant to the industry but many are of little or no relevance as far as we are concerned."
Mr Boyce echoes many in the industry in calling for a clear differentiation in prospectuses between those courses offering job-related training and those purely providing an academic degree.
While courses grounded in practical skills might prove useful to students seeking work, theory-based courses were worthless to employers, he said. He called for accreditation of a limited number of top courses by industry experts.
Gill Monk, head of personnel at Channel 4, said a media studies qualification and a job in television were not connected, despite the belief of some students. "Obviously we look at graduates, but we want discipline and intellect. You are as likely to get a job with a science degree as with one in media studies."
Concern over training has prompted two sets of current research. Skillset, the broadcasting film and video industry lead body, is examining college and university media courses, while a study by the British Film Institute is tracking the progress of 450 people already in the industry. Early findings have prompted a seminar being held next week at London's National Film Theatre to address concerns over deskilling in the television industry.
Dinah Caine of Skillset said colleges and universities were allowing media student numbers to mushroom despite a "very, very small jobs market". The industry did not wish to criticise the educational value of such courses, but was alarmed at claims that they provided students with the practical skills to fit them for work.
"The pressure on HE and FE institutions means small numbers of staff dealing with large numbers of students, at a time when capital funding cuts mean there is little or no money for new equipment. For most students, the level of skills they go out with nowhere near matches the levels of skills needed by employers. "
FEFC senior inspector David Sherlock denied increasing numbers of young people taking media courses would translate into a flood of job-seekers. The majority of the 5,854 students who took A-level media studies last year had taken the subject as an intellectual discipline, not as a preparation for work, he said.
Meanwhile the BFI study is uncovering growing training gaps for those already in the industry. As casualisation increases, and fewer people have access to the training offered within the big broadcasting institutions, young people in particular are increasingly working for little or no pay to gain vital experience. A quarter of under-30s in the industry earn less than Pounds 10,000 a year, the research shows.
Skillset, backed by key employers and unions, is seeking to remedy concerns over variable quality of training by introducing national vocational qualifications to create a firm standards' framework.
Calls from some in the media, alarmed at the numbers flooding into their profession, for a cap on numbers are unlikely to be answered.
An FEFC spokeswoman said: "The wider issue here is whether the state should dictate what people will do and plan provision accordingly. For the time being, the state thinks students should follow the opportunities that interest them."
One media studies department head at a new university condemned the broadcasting institutions for criticising courses while failing to invest adequately in training. "They only put money into big names like the National Film School and then have the cheek to suggest our equipment is not up to standard."
Another media tutor added: "The industry is willing to let keen graduates work for nothing or a pittance, which does not exactly help raise standards in the profession."