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13 July 2014

Degrees of Separation

This is the time of year when I really get stuck in to the job of interviewing candidates for next year's Postgraduate Broadcast Journalism course at Leeds Trinity. With money tight for postgrad study they're thinner on the ground than they used to be.

My course, most unusually, starts in January - so anyone graduating this summer has six months to earn money, gain experience, find themselves or just vegetate whilst consuming the contents of their parents' fridge before starting a demanding programme in the new year.

The timing also means we turn people out on placement in October and November, a time when those who conform to the rigid academic year are in full-on delivery mode. That way we get the pick of the best newsroom placements for our lot to choose from. But that's another story.

I want to see diversity in applicants. Rather than just seeing those still recovering from the cost of hiring a gown for an hour in July I'm anxious to meet those who are changing career. Mature candidates, those who made the wrong choice at 21 or were steered away from broadcast journalism by the naysayers predicting the imminent death of radio (Again. That game started in 1953) or local papers (we achieved 100% employment on last year's Print course. The majority in -er- local papers).

I want to see more scientists. I want more applications from minority communities. And - heresy of heresies - I want to hear from those who aren't even graduates at all.

Ever since the universities collectively inherited the role of training journalists from employers who either couldn't afford it or couldn't be bothered they've done their damnest to make the vocational training fit the university model.

Not only in the timing of courses, but also their content. Two-hour long sessions of this and that spread over 40 weeks are the norm when what trainee journos need are concentrated immersive weeks and months doing the job, day in and day out.

My postgrads do a month on air each year for Bradford Community Broadcasting. At the end of that month they know they can do wireless. More importantly, they know if they really want to do radio, or if they'd be better off doing something else. Like teaching, or PR.

Universities love academic honours. Not only in the teaching staff, with applicants for roles more highly valued for holding a PhD than for half a lifetime of newsroom experience, but also in the students. 'A good honours degree' is usually cited as the entry standard for a postgraduate course.

There are good reasons for setting such a standard. External NCTJ exams in Media Law and Public Affairs are tough, and no trainer worth the name will ever set up a candidate to fail. A 2:1 degree will normally attest that the applicant has fully internalised the norms of hacking exam questions in an overheated gym and will be able to transfer those skills readily to an applied subject.

But sometimes a useful yardstick can prove to be an impossible barrier to the types of diverse candidates employers are seeking.

Bosses at the BBC, ITV and Sky are letting it be known loud and clear that they will no longer employ an endless stream of white, middle class southern kids. Social diversity is a big priority, That's where we encounter a problem. Here comes the heresy again - many of those currently most in demand have, most probably, never been to university at all.

Let's recap.

Some of the best journalism training out there happens on postgraduate courses accredited by the BJTC and the NCTJ.

Typically such courses are a year long, and require fees around the five grand mark. That's a lot shorter and cheaper than a 3-year undergraduate degree. But, because universities think first and foremost in terms of academic qualifications, a diverse candidate has to meet the conventional standard of a good first degree to be considered for entry. It's a classic Catch 22.

However, it doesn't have to be so.

Some of the best journalists I've taught in the past couple of years have come to us with no first degree.

We've admitted them on the basis of building a case; letting their life experience, skills and non-academic achievements count in place of an expensive and often irrelevant university grounding.

Of course there will be tests to make sure each and every candidate will be able to cope with the formal, written and assessed aspects of the work. It would be irresponsible to take money off people who were destined to fail. The thing to remember is that those aspiring to be journalists must be able to write for different audiences. If you can write Tabloid, you can write Hogwarts. It's just a voice.

So if you - or someone you know - would make a good broadcast journalist but lack the formal qualifications for entry to a 'postgraduate' course, let's talk. If it's what you're suited for you'll find a way of tracking me down, you'll pick up a phone and you'll start asking hard questions about what is involved and what I can really offer beyond the bluster.

And if you do that, and make sense when you get the chance, I'll know you're right for journalism.

For the record - these are my personal views.  All mine. Obviously. It's a blog.

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