NCTJ justifies its existence (again)

Is the NCTJ developing some kind of superiority complex? Is it normal for a professional training body to spend so much time justifying its own existence?

In the September issue of British Journalism Review, Andy Bull, the NCTJ’s qualification and careers consultant, attacks media studies degrees and some journalism courses for failing to provide students with the practical skills they need to enter the profession.

In the article, Bull describes what he tells new recruits on his journalism course:

“Finding that they are studying a craft rather than an academic pursuit puzzles some students. It’s often the first they have heard of such a distinction. This is particularly true of those who have spent three years gaining a media studies degree and have found, to their consternation, that it is not helping them to a get a job as a journalist.”

He continues:

They discover that editors are much less interested in the class of degree they have received, or, often, the institution that awarded it, than whether the course was accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, the Periodical Training Council or the Broadcast Journalism Training Council.”

The message to students is loud and clear — if you want a job in journalism, get yourself on an accredited course. Bull writes: “Clearly, graduates from industry-accredited courses are at a huge advantage when it comes to finding a job.”

This is not the first time we’ve heard this rather simplistic message from the NCTJ. Now for full disclosure, I work at a university that is NCTJ-accredited (although I write this blog purely in a personal capacity). The accreditation is well respected in the industry and it works well for our students when they go to interviews.

I accept Bull’s point that there are a number of journalism degree courses that are, essentially, theoretical in nature. That’s not to say that these types of courses are not without value, they just shouldn’t be sold to students as a way of getting into the profession. A simple name change is what’s required.

But Bull’s article, like a phony journalism degree, also appears to trade on confusion. There are many great journalism degree courses offered by respected universities that are not NCTJ-accredited…City, UCE Birmingham, Cardiff… in fact the list is pretty long.

As I have mentioned before, I support what the NCTJ is trying to achieve. Okay, so we may have to agree to disagree about the value of shorthand in comparison to other essential skills such as ethics (which is increasingly important) and media law.  Bull would dismiss this complaint and states: “For editors and for the NCTJ, shorthand is essential. Universities have a problem with shorthand because they see it purely as a mechanical skill. Never mind that it is hard to manage as a foreign language.”

Where I work we teach shorthand. Unfortunately, it does tend to dominate an already packed timetable. Journalism is changing and it’s not as if we are short of essential skills to teach (more about that later). The NCTJ has to realise that if you teach shorthand, students get less of something else that’s also really important.

Who says editors are demanding shorthand? I know of some editors who would say that to be able to write and create a blog is an important skill. How about an ability to film, edit and upload video clips to the net? But the NCTJ believes that only it can speak for the newspaper industry and apparently all editors want shorthand.

Bull writes: “Academia, which is not comfortable with craft skills, inevitably wanted to intellectualise the study of journalism, so you get students wondering what the sociology of journalism, politics and society has to do with learning to be a reporter.”

This is not the first time we have heard the “academic snobs” attack from the NCTJ. People in HE love to be told what they are “comfortable” with! The NCTJ is important, but it makes few friends with generalised statements like this.

Based on statements like this you could be forgiven for thinking that the brief of the NCTJ is purely to train students to be reporters on local newspapers. That’s a pretty limited brief at a time when surely flexibility is what the industry is demanding.

The NCTJ understands the world of FE, but it doesn’t seem to “get” higher education.It would certainly benefit from talking to the universities far more, particularly those universities like City,UCE Birmingham and others who have not chosen to become accredited.

I am probably stating the blindingly obvious here, but all degrees ultimately have the same
purpose, regardless of
content. Whether students study, art, politics, journalism or
chemistry, students develop the skills to critically think,
analyse, research, question, self-motivate etc etc.

A journalism degree can combine academic rigour with
practical skills.
It’s possible in engineering and fine art, so what makes journalism any different?

In fact the academic side, so quickly dismissed by the NCTJ, is more important than ever. Journalism is going through rapid change, much of it driven by the Internet. Students need to understand how it will impact on their careers not just now, but in 10 and 15 years’ time. We will be failing our students if they don’t appreciate the need to be adaptable, output work for different media and understand how the economics of the business and the technology is changing.

I reiterate the point that I support the NCTJ. I join it in wishing to see more university journalism and media degrees become accredited. Sadly just 60 university courses are accredited or just 10 per cent of those that are listed by UCAS. The NCTJ is going to have to change its tune, if the number is ever to rise.

Alastair Stewart sneers at students who study on journalism degrees.

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2 Responses to NCTJ justifies its existence (again)

  1. Dr Martin Hirst March 8, 2008 at 5:08 am #

    Very interesting, similar arguments occur in New Zealand and I’m currently seeking some views on the relevance of shorthand in my own course and others.
    I’m posting some stuff to my own blog on this and would welcome comments.

  2. James September 25, 2008 at 12:43 pm #

    Interesting article; I am studying on an NCTJ course, so the snobbery is somewhat on my side – but it does seem a bit harsh to openly put down obviously efficient academic institutions. Perhaps the NCTJ should try and work with them instead?