I’ve avoiding blogging/talking about the Kelvin Mackenzie thing on journalism education and the tuition fees increases mainly because it fills me with rage and I’m all Zen these days.

But the news that the University of Sunderland – the seat of learning at which I suckled the teat (love mixed metaphors) for three years – is to charge up to £8,500 for a year’s education means I can’t stay quiet any more.

Now, my time at Sunderland wasn’t a complete disaster. That would be unfair. I met some great people, although I could have done that by making myself homeless, for free, rather than getting into £20k of debt. The frankly farcical lack of contact hours in the final year allowed me to rack up a few grand working for the Students’ Union on their magazine Degrees North. But that’s about it.

I have strong opinions on journalism education and they pretty much match up with Kelvin Mackenzie’s rant in the Independent recently. My degree was structured to have a basis in academic theory. Unfortunately, nobody in charge of the course (and it was those in charge to blame, not the lecturers, they were as good as could be expected with what they had to work with) had bothered to find any worth teaching for three years. Galtung and Ruge’s news values study is literally the only thing we did, endlessly repeated, for three whole years. We did some stuff on F-shape web reading but it was so half-arsed it was spectacularly obvious and pointless. People skim-read. Fuck, really? Hold the front page.

My point is there’s not enough theory out there – teaching journalism is too new – to base a whole three-year degree around it. Now, I can only speak for Sunderland as that’s where I studied, but from lots of the other institutions I looked at and even visited, it seems to be the same story at a lot of places. The degrees are not set up to give people the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the industry. And if they’re not doing that – what is the fucking point of them?

Okay, so you can argue going to uni is about more than being trained up for a job at the end of it. But look around you. Unemployment is high. Wages are low. Can you really afford to spend three years drinking too much and shagging around, occasionally pulling an all-nighter to do an assignment, when the course isn’t even going to give you a half-decent job at the end of it? Especially in journalism, when you’ll be starting out on frankly insulting wages for such an important line of work. £30k debt. £15k starting wage, if you’re lucky.

You only have to look around my peers from that year of the journalism course to see what an outstanding failure it was (or we were? up to you to decide). One lad is working for the local paper, fair play to him, following work experience and an internship through the uni. Others, from ones I’m still in touch with, off the top of my head, are re-training as teachers, working in call centres, working in phone shops, working in supermarkets and so on. I’m fairly sure you don’t need £20k of debt and a degree for those, do you? Would they spend their time again in the same way? I doubt it.

The students on my course were so disenfranchised with the whole set-up 18 months in some quit in frustration at the lack of progress. There were extenuating circumstances. Important – and popular – lecturers left and were not replaced quickly enough. The ship was rudderless. Those in charge seemed to think the students would be happy drifting through a course with nobody taking charge of it, directing it, moving into new areas, innovating.

Anyway. My course was basically a waste of three years of my life and got me into thousands of pounds of debt. But don’t let that put you off. I’m sure in the two years since I’ve left, Sunderland has overhauled the journalism degrees completely, making them well worth the at least £7k a year young people will now have to fork out. That’s £21k, right off the bat. More debt than I got in getting a degree, even including my maintenance loans – and I worked part-time throughout my degree. Let’s save the whole argument about how much fees are in general for another time.

From a quick look through the courses on offer, Sunderland has clearly decided to go down the specialism route. This is at least an improvement. The only options for my year were magazine and newspaper – and even then there was minimal difference between the two once the switch came in the last year. Let’s take the fashion route as an example. The brief on the site claims to offer magazine design as an important part of the course. That’s an improvement. We had one hour of teaching on InDesign, I reckon. Most of the lecturers appeared as clueless using it as us – most of us self-taught ourselves at home. One was frankly a genius and when I asked how he did it he said it was endless hours at home pressing buttons to see what they do. £20k for a degree and you end up teaching yourself? It doesn’t seem right.

Of course you have to put work in when you sign up to a degree – you can’t expect everything served to you on a plate. It’s supposed to give you an idea of what the real world is like, with nobody pushing you. But learning the basics should certainly be an important facet of a degree – otherwise, what’s the fucking point?

Still on the fashion brief, the ethics module is still in the last year. This is spectacularly dumb. It’s shoehorned in as they have nothing else to say by that point. You do two years of a journalism degree and learn nowt about ethics? Shambles. So it’s still broken. Our ethics class consisted of a PR bloke (teaching journalists! you couldn’t make this up) spouting shite like “how do you know the world is round?” at us every week. It’s no wonder half the class stopped going and half of the other half queued up to complain about it one day. Nothing changed, nothing improved.

I’m getting off the point, I figured I would when I started this blog. To come back to Mackenzie’s argument – he’s spot on. Universities are simply not equipped to give you the skills you need to work in the industry. If you sign up to one of these £7k/£9k a year jobbies I promise you halfway in you’ll be questioning what the fuck you are doing. When I was at Sunderland there was no newspaper to write for, there was one page in the local paper once a week we were encouraged to pitch articles for. One page for dozens of students. Awesome. We had a newspaper we produced twice a year but even then the uni spiked good stories as they were critical of it. That’s another story but you can read more about the whole farce, should you wish, here.

If you want to be a journalist, in my opinion the worst thing you can do is commit yourself to three years of sitting in a room having news fucking values and other such bollocks rammed down your neck. If you want to be a journalist you already KNOW what news values are. It’s inside you. You should be able to spot a good story already. You don’t need teaching how to use fucking apostrophes, as we gob-smackingly were in one class. If you don’t know the difference between your and you’re – how did you get into university in the first place?

You can only learn by doing. Go out and about. Talk to people. Find out what their stories are. Write them up. If you can’t already write you’ll never make a reporter anyway so why spend three years honing your writing? You can learn style by reading papers. Send your stuff to the local paper and news agencies. Go to the courts and see how they work – talk to the reporters on the press bench, if your local rag still sends anyone. Do the same for council meetings. Start a fucking blog. Update it regularly. Write with authority and develop a voice. You could do all of this while at university but I promise you, I absolutely promise you, no journalism degree can teach you what you can’t learn for FREE if you’re committed enough.

Journalists should have a knowledge of how the world works. If you go straight from school to college to university and expect to get a job in the industry you’re kidding yourself. You’ve done nothing, have you? Go out and work. In real jobs. Find out about real people, real issues, what people care about, what keeps them awake at night.

As for a way in – all you can do is be lucky. But spending £20k on tuition fees and another £10k on living for three years is not good value. It’s terrible value. Not just at Sunderland, although I wouldn’t recommend a course there to my worst enemies, journalism courses everywhere are not a good financial decision. You’ll probably never pay that debt off. You don’t need it.

Go it alone. Show initiative. Be an entrepreneur. Make a name for yourself. People will sit up and take notice.

Good luck.

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