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12 December 2017

How Long is a Piece of String?

There's been a lot of discussion this week about UK government support for "short" degree courses, which would allow students to take a degree over two years rather than three.

The argument has centred around cost - the two-year degrees would be priced at around £11,100 a year instead of the almost universal £9,250 currently charged for each year of study on a three-year course.

My concern, however, is less about the fees and more to do with the breathtaking arrogance with which the academic establishment has turned against the proposals, alleging that any shortening of a three-year delivery cycle automatically diminishes the experience for students.

I profoundly disagree.

That's not to say I would call for the traditional system to be scrapped.

Three years might work very well, for all I know, in a subject like French Philosophy. What I do know for certain is that it works very badly for training journalists - a subject I do know something about.

There is a fundamental mismatch between the demands of a newsroom and the demands of a typical academic university course.

Both involve deadlines. News deadlines are nearly always short and absolute. The programme or bulletin must go to air at the scheduled time, or not at all.

Academic deadlines are generally much longer, set in stone and published well in advance, so there's little chance for courses to adapt their delivery around breaking news events like a General Election. Worse, they're often designed primarily to suit the convenience of the institution.

That's before we consider any degree of flexibility with hand-ins .. Friday (or next Friday if you can't quite manage it) still happens in some places. Officially or otherwise.

A more serious issue comes with the design of course delivery.

A typical undergraduate 20-credit course involves 40 hours of contact time - delivered as either four hours a week over one ten week semester ("short and fat"), or two hours a week over two semesters ("long and thin").

Imagine as a worst-case scenario, trying to teach a practical subject like radio with two hours a week contact time stretched out (allowing for holidays, the unofficial half terms known as "reading weeks" and other interruptions) over the best part of nine months.

Not every student arrives punctually; allowing for just five minutes of tardiness, and five minutes' early dismissal to allow a chance of crossing campus for the student's next class knocks another 3 hours 20 minutes off the available teaching time .. call it 10%. Or 5% with the "short, fat" model.

Now guess how much the student retains and remembers from one week to the next, or across holidays. There is never a real chance to get up to speed with news writing, editing and reading. No sooner are they getting into the zone for the exercise than it's over.

It's for this reason that professional accrediting bodies like the Broadcast Journalism Training Council insist on news days as part of a course - days on which the students work non-stop for at least six hours.

Or what any actual newsroom would regard as a short(ish) day at the office.

It never ceased to amaze me, when serving on the BJTC's Journalism and Accreditation Board, how many universities found even the modest requirement to complete ten news days a year to be a burden.

I recall one course leader literally wringing her hands at the prospect of negotiating such timetabling arrangements from the Academic Committee greybeards at her institution. "It's not what universities do!" she cried, in anguish.

Well, they should do.

There are some accredited short courses which better suit the requirements of teaching news. They're generally in the private sector. Few universities would consider something as radical as a six month course .. but whyever not?

Universities could deliver vital elements of news skills, such as Media Law, very readily over a few weeks using their existing faculty if only they would break away from the "long, thin/short,fat" template.

There's a big push for diversity in news. Quite rightly.

Every employer wants more candidates from "groups currently under-represented in newsrooms". The most crying need is for social diversity. Bluntly, there are too many posh kids entering newsrooms, whatever their ethnicity. One way to tackle that, and for which I believe there is pent-up demand, would be to offer short form courses over six months or so.

The student, and more specifically an older career-changer with the kind of life skills and experience in non-news jobs newsrooms crave, could save up (or take a more affordable loan) to sustain themselves for a short, intense period knowing it would all be over in 20 weeks or so.

Shut themselves off from other distractions, and immerse themselves in the skills of newsgathering.

Immersion. That's the other essential.

The problem with news days is when they're disconnected. The BJTC recommends that at least some news days are sequential.

Just about anyone can psych themselves up, work flat out for a day, thrive on the buzz of adrenaline, achieve spectacular results, hug themselves and head to the pub to celebrate. Then go to bed for the weekend.

What differentiates career journalists is the need to come back the next morning. And again. And again. And again.

Pacing themselves, and staging a story over morning and afternoon bulletins - plus finding the all important overnight line. Preparing for weekends and Christmas holidays - "Don't eat turkey more than three days old warn health bosses", anyone?

Learning to cope with burnout, and learning what a "workmanlike job" means. Doing the best we can with the story in the time available, and then walking away from it.

To have a life.

I found a way, with my original postgraduate Broadcast course, to build in at least a month of consecutive newsdays split over TV, radio and latterly online production. These newsdays were the heart of the course, and what just about every successful trainee I had remembers with affection.

The time it all came together, when they stopped being a student and became a journalist. Pure alchemy.

So I for one am a big advocate of diversity, not least in course delivery models. Let's smash the cartel that demands courses are delivered to a "one size fits all" university template. Let's encourage novel delivery stystems, and involve the employers in the process.

It's time to stop running our 21st-century training institutions to fit the convenience of some traditional academic lifestyle.


  1. Hi Richard,

    I agree with your excellent blog about shorter degrees.

    I am sharing your blog with Roger Perkins, my colleague who runs our Journalism and Media Programmes at the University of Buckingham and His thoughts will be interesting.

    I run the world's first undergraduate Venture Creation Programme (BSc Business Enterprise) at the University of Buckingham. We make our BBE programme as "real world" as possible, so working students for two years, 8 terms is closer to the real world. My students also must start and run a real business as an integral part of their honours degree. See more details here: http://bit.ly/bbe_independent

    One result of working on our BBE programme is that the students mature quicker than non-BBE students. Not surprisingly, none are unemployed after graduating. Even if they don't continue their business or start a new one, they easily find jobs, especially in fast-growing start ups or they return to family businesses.

  2. Hi Nigel.

    Delighted to hear I'm not alone in advocating the creation of "real world" environments within Universities, albeit with safeguards to support trainees who find the transition difficult.

    I agree those on intensive courses mature much faster, and I achieved a 93% employment rate with my trainees in one of the most competitive of sectors for new entrants. I'm satisfied with that.

    The challenge is now for other institutions to wake up and realise a delivery model established in the nineteenth century is not always the best way for Universities to operate in the twenty first.