Media Qualifications – What’s Their Worth?

Media Qualifications – What’s Their Worth?

Media qualifications have received much cynicism from the industry, but the number of students who flock to pursue them continues to grow. This week TV lecturer Royston Mayoh who nominated his former student and winner of the Runner of the Year Awards, Jade Gilbert, weighs up their real value.

How wonderful to hear that, Jade Gilbert, won the 2010 ProductionBase Runner of the Year award, and my personal congratulations to her for that, but how strange that in the very same week I am asked to write about my experiences as a college lecturer in TV production, what my view is about the value of these ‘media’ qualifications.

It is no secret that a degree in ‘media’ is viewed by both the academic world and the TV world with a certain amount of scepticism. Although it would be quite unfair to make a sweeping generalisation I think that, in the main, most would agree that the academic world regard it as a ‘soft’ subject, whilst the TV world regard it as having very little real value.

Please don’t misunderstand me, the TV world does recognise graduates with a degree in a ‘media’ related subject; but production managers know, from bitter experience, that in far too many cases, their first job is to remove an arrogance and a college embedded belief that they have learnt most , if not all, there is to learn.

Some universities and colleges do provide ‘practical’ studio workshop experiences and projects in addition to the academic modules. Many courses also make provision for external ‘work experience’. However at the end of each academic year thousands of graduates leave their respective seats of learning with a colourful certificate, a ‘cap & gown’ photograph for the mantelpiece……but no job.

I am quite sure that all the nominees in the 2010 ProductionBase’s ‘Runner of the Year’ category, and particularly, Jade Gilbert (the winner) will agree with me that their inclusion in this category was all about what they did after their formal studies were over and not about the ‘level’ or grade achieved whilst at college or uni.

In many ways it is quite unfair for me to make comment on this present state of affairs, as my ‘education’ in TV Production was provided by the industry itself. As a general trainee for ABC TV the only way that I knew whether I was succeeding or failing was whether I had a job or not the following week. The TV industry, for all sorts of financial reasons, cut back on ‘internal’ training and so now it has to rely heavily on young people with an ‘external’ qualification.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is that even when the graduate (clutching a ‘first’ in a media related degree) begin their career as a ‘runner’ (as all must do!) the only way that they know whether they are succeeding or failing is whether they have a job or not the following week.

The reality is that whilst the ‘qualification’ may succeed in getting a graduate an interview it is then entirely upto that newcomer to prove their worth at the interview and subsequently (if the interview was success) start working right at the bottom of the greasy pole with hardened professionals judging their every effort.

The syllabus contained in academic modules such as ‘Regulation & Compliance’, ‘Broadcast Ethics’ & ‘Research & Pitching skills’ will prove to be of great value to the graduate once up and running in the industry. In many cases this knowledge can also be most useful to the new ‘runner’, but only if it was taught within the practical context of the TV industry and not just as an amorphous unrelated subject that can only be graded on the outcome of a bibliographical 800 word essay.

Writing about my experiences as a college lecturer in TV production also comes at a very interesting time, politically. Having just seen a throwback to the ‘60s with students from Goldsmiths College demonstrating against the increase in college fees, I can’t help asking myself, are they right?

The answer, of course, is not that simple. One the one hand, in this present financial climate, it is blatantly impossible to offer free higher education and the other hand the question that is NOT asked that frequently is ‘…what service am I getting in return for my college fees (increased or otherwise)?’

As a freelance producer/director, I got to learn early on in my career that the person (or company) that is paying for my service is usually regarded as the client. I cannot see any difference when it comes to students; they are paying for a service so they should be able (or even allowed) to ask and get a coherent reply to the question…who is teaching and providing this service? And whether the fees demanded are reflected in the service to be provided.

When it comes to ‘vocational subjects’ it is easy for colleges and universities to recognise that a potential qualification in plumbing, gas maintenance or Built Environment should, essentially, be taught by professional plumbers, gasmen and builders! But when it comes to TV production (which is not regarded as a vocational subject) it would appear that, in the main, any academic teacher will do.

Of course it would not possible to retain the services of a professional TV programme maker as a full time teacher or tutor without paying much more than the regular teachers and tutors are paid, unless that TV professional was retired and wished to ‘give something back’.

The compromise should be (and used to be) that during any media related course there would be occasional lectures from successful, and named, TV (and/or media) professionals, who would be paid a proper and mutually agreed daily rate for their input. However, in my personal experience this service and the necessary costs involved can, and are, so easily cut without questioning the harm being done to the credibility of the course itself.

The identity and CV of such visiting professionals would be a useful gauge for any parent or student wishing to quantify the value of the course against the fees being paid, and also give some idea of what level of teaching to expect.

I would love to see potential students and parents (as the clients they truly are) asking the service providers (colleges and universities) what service they can be guaranteed to expect and essentially who will be teaching them, and what proven vocational professional background the lecturers and/or tutors have. This would ensure a much better recognised and much more respected qualification.

Until then, graduates with newly acquired degrees in media related subjects will have to do just the same as Jade Gilbert, and many others (including me) did which is to start at the very bottom of the greasy pole, which seems to be getting greasier and greasier!

Royston Mayoh is a college lecturer and consultant in TV production.