This is the time of year when thousands of sixth formers are making life-changing decisions about which university course to choose. Many are seeking vocationally-relevant, advanced training to get the right start in a professional career.
For those seeking to enter journalism it's vital to get the choice of course right. There are many, many training institutions out there, and it's so important to choose the one that will best meet your aspirations.
An essential skill for any wannabe journo is to ask the right questions. No journalism tutor worthy of the title will think badly of you for going beyond the glossy pictures in the prospectus by seeking hard information about the realities of the course. Five key questions ...
1) What are the job outcomes?
You are about to invest three years of your life in this decision, you'll be paying back the loans until you're my age, so you've got to get it right.
Why do you want to study journalism? I'll assume it's because you want a job being paid (in some way) to generate radio, television or online news.
In that case the first thing you need to know is what jobs the graduating class are getting. Just about everywhere will boast about their numbers "in employment or further education three months after graduating". But if that employment is in retail or financial services, what's the point? Press course leaders hard. Of the students who graduated last July, where, exactly, are they working right now?
2) What actual news experience do the tutors have - currently, not just in the past?
There are courses that teach journalism, and there are courses called "Journalism" that talk about journalism. There's nothing wrong with the academic study of the news process, media ownership and the impact of journalism on society, but if what you really want is a vocational training in how to tell a story for a given audience the best way you'll get that is from an experienced practitioner who has also taken the trouble to keep their skills up to date in a digital world.
I've written before about the divide between career academics and practitioner teachers in higher education - it's my most successful blog to date. So ask each and every tutor how long they've spent in industry, what they did and more importantly what they do right now to keep their skills and contacts fresh.
Do they take on newsroom shifts during the holidays for radio or TV? Cover elections, or freelance at the weekend in sports coverage? Do they engage with professionals in social media? Is their best work published to a mass audience, or just "published" to the tiny audience of academic journals?
3) Is the course accredited? If not, why not?
There are two main accrediting bodies in the UK - the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) and the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC - of which, for disclosure, I'm a Board member). Historically the NCTJ dealt with courses training people for careers in newspapers whilst the BJTC looked after those geared towards jobs in local radio and regional TV. Now with the industry converging on web-based delivery there's a lot of overlap between the two. The NCTJ runs a schedule of examinations which are independent of any university; they apply a common external industry standard to all students and derive their main income from the fees paid to sit these examinations.
The BJTC accredits courses, and requires that these courses meet exacting standards including the number of practical news days undertaken in each year. It also requires adequate arrangements for industry placements, and the provision of voice training. The BJTC's income is derived from an annual fee paid by each accredited course. There can often be conflict between the demands of a conventional academic timetable, and the BJTC's requirement to deliver at least 15 operational news days a year in the second and third years of each accredited course.
4) Where will I go on my placement .. and who will arrange it?
Placement is the bridge between training and employment. Find out where trainees have been on placement in the past year, and how they got there. Some institutions take great care to match individual trainees with specific employers based on skills and attitudes, whilst others place the onus on students to use their initiative to find and arrange their own placement.
5) Can I talk to some of your current trainees about their experiences?
Current students are - or at least, should be - the best ambassadors for any course.
When I go on a BJTC review visit the most illuminating part of any day is when the trainees meet privately with the review team (normally including an employer rep, and a tutor from a course far enough away not to be a direct competitor with the course under review). These students are normally full of praise for their tutors and their institution; but they also reveal the grit in the shoe, the things that could be done better.
Ideally, arrange to meet some current students outside the artificial setting of an open day. Drop in during a period of live news operation to see them under stress (and how the tutors lead the team under pressure). It's what you would do if you were researching a business once you've graduated; as only a poor journo writes the story from the organisation's news release, only a naive student chooses a course from the pretty pictures in the prospectus.
If you follow this advice you'll not only be in a better position to choose the best course for your particular ambitions, you'll also be more likely to get an offer from the good courses. That's because you'll be demonstrating one of the key attributes of a good journalist .. asking relevant, searching questions from people in authority .. before you even fill out an application form.