TV firms tune out media studies
Television companies, faced with a huge over-supply of young people seeking a career in the industry, are calling for a review of the burgeoning number of media studies courses now on offer.
According to the first survey of course provision by Skillset, the TV industry training organisation, student numbers are far outstripping the industry's demand for new employees.
It found that 32,000 further and higher education students study media as their main or only subject on some 400 courses. Many more study media as a subsidiary subject.
Just under half the courses were said by their providers to be at least 50 per cent practical in content. On average, 45 per cent of students found work within one year of graduating.
However, the survey uncovered a wide variation in content between courses - differences which, it is often claimed, are not always made clear to students when they enrol.
It also noted "significant differences" between the reported intention and perceptions within the industry.
Skillset is producing a consultation paper to improve links between the employers and training providers, with a view to introducing some kind of validation of vocational courses.
"Both the industry and potential students need to know what these courses are about," said Kate O'Connor, project director at Skillset.
"We certainly support media degrees that concentrate on analysis and do not attempt to provide training for the industry.
"But if the industry is being asked to design curriculum provision, help with work placements, access to equipment, lecturers for courses and so on, it cannot do so on the scale it is being asked for at the moment."
The survey found postgraduate courses were generally more work-orientated and more likely to lead to a job. But students often had to pay their own way, prompting concern about equality of opportunity.
Partly in response to the flood of media studies graduates, two leading independent production companies - Twenty Twenty Television and October Films - have launched a code of practice to regulate the use of would-be entrants on work experience placements.
The code may eventually evolve into a formal training system for the independent TV sector, with smaller companies working together to each provide recruits with a few months of practical experience.
Anecdotal evidence points to a large increase in the number of people working for months without pay or, in a few cases, even paying a production company for the chance to gain some experience. Nor are such practices confined to the independent sector; the BBC and ITV also come in for criticism.
"I have no problem with giving work experience to people on media studies courses during their vacation," says Claudia Milne, managing director of Twenty Twenty.
"What we are trying to stop is the widespread practice of using people on work experience as unpaid labour. It can be exploitative, and in the longer term it means entrants to the industry will all be from well-off backgrounds."
The code of practice, already signed by more than 40 companies, limits a work placement to four weeks. Students must be supervised and shadow an experienced employee, to ensure they learn something rather than merely provide free labour. It also forbids companies to take on work experience students in place of paid employees, or allow students to claim unemployment benefit while working.
A formal training system, Claudia Milne believes, would be vastly preferable to the present flood of inappropriately-trained media studies graduates desperate for work experience.
"Every day I get three or four letters from people asking if they can come and work for nothing," she says.
"Media studies has mushroomed because money follows students, and the courses are very popular. There are exceptions, but the vast majority are pretty second-rate and do not prepare students at all. I prefer people who have got an ordinary degree in something else."
Her mistrust of media studies is, it seems, widely shared. A recent study by the British Film Institute found that while nearly all new recruits in the television industry had a higher education qualification, only a quarter had taken media studies, film or television studies, or communication studies.
The report, part of a tracking study of 500 people of all ages in the industry, also revealed that a quarter of 21 to 30-year-olds earned less than Pounds 10,000 a year. Sixty-five per cent worked as freelances. Only 20 per cent of the total sample had received formal training in the previous six months.
To receive a free copy of the Skillset consultative paper, write to: Skillset, 124 Horseferry Road, London, SW1P 2TX.