Media studies gets a hard time in higher education and the top universities in the UK are not making things any easier by continuing to take a contradictory stance as they advise students on what to study.
The UK’s Russell Group of large, research-intensive universities cautions prospective A-level students against studying the subject if they want admission to one of its member universities, yet an overwhelming number of them offer courses in it.
Media studies has long been a target for the right-wing press in Britain, obsessed as it is with a perceived dumbing down of education. Fine, reasoned defences of the subject do not seem to be filtering down to the popular level, and media studies is still considered an inferior academic subject. The Russell Group’s position on the matter only reinforces such lazy stereotypes.
In a pamphlet called Informed Choices, the Russell Group sets out its collective advice for school and college students on what to study at A-level. This stops short of telling prospective students not to take media studies but classes it alongside art and design, photography and business studies as being perceived as a “soft” subject. The definition of a soft subject is somewhat ambiguous, but they are described as having a “vocational or practical bias”.
Informed Choices suggests that while studying one soft subject does not usually reflect negatively on a student when they apply to a Russell Group university, they should nevertheless prioritise “facilitating subjects” such as physics, geography and history, as they are the subjects most commonly required for admission to Russell Group institutions.
But in an arresting, highlighted black and yellow text-box just below this information in the pamphlet, the Russell Group notes: “ATTENTION!! If you plan to take more than one perceived ‘soft’ subject, some caution may be needed”. The Russell Group cleverly stops short of defining a soft subject but by presenting the material in this way it clearly shows how it views media studies.
This sits rather awkwardly with the fact that media studies (incorporating film studies) is represented at a school or departmental level, or in terms of significant groups/sections at 16 of the group’s 24 member universities. This includes the University of Glasgow, King’s College London and Cardiff University. A further six universities have various research configurations and teaching units that relate to the subject, including the University of Exeter and University College London.
Between them, this group of 22 institutions represents over 90% of the Russell Group. Finding the exceptions is difficult: media research is conducted at the University of Cambridge in the Media, Culture and New Technologies group, and the subject is formally included on the MPhil in Modern Society and Global Transformations, so it cannot be fully excluded. Perhaps the only absolute exception is Imperial College London, which is not surprising given its focus on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
The UK’s leading research institutions clearly don’t see media studies as intellectually less rigorous or as a subject that more appropriately belongs to newer universities and ex-polytechnics.
There is a widespread academic interest in culture that invariably leads to a focus on the media, given the extensively mediated nature of UK society today, and the overwhelming interest in issues such as regulating the press that surrounded the Leveson Inquiry. Some of the leading voices on media reform have been media studies academics working within the Hacked Off and Media Reform Coalition groups. From an instrumental point of view, media studies courses can attract large student numbers and thus the potential tuition-fee income is attractive to institutions. There is also significant interest from foreign students, where potential fee incomes can be very high; I write from the University of Nottingham’s China campus, where more than one hundred undergraduate students commence a BA degree in international communications each year.
Russell Group institutions appear to have no problem recruiting students to media studies courses that usually have less of a practice based dimension than those offered by many newer universities, showing that arguments for the shift to a more vocational media studies education need not necessarily be taken at face value. The argument that the student “consumer” wants a more vocational education is shown to be representative of only one side of the argument. A humanities based media studies course that does not place an emphasis on the teaching of skills is still possible, without requiring every student to learn how to use a video camera.
It is significant that the vociferous arguments that media studies is a worthless subject have not prevailed at a such a large number of Russell Group institutions. These institutions may have either seen the academic merit of including the subject, or identified it as having the potential for strong student recruitment, but either way the subject has found its place within the academy.
The Russell Group should take account of this in the advice they give to potential A-level students, and remove any hint of doubt that the subject may still be considered soft, at whatever level it is taught.