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Media Studies is shit… say the UK’s top universities

August 22, 2009

Last week The Guardian (17 August 2009) carried a story about how A Level subjects most valued by universities are disappearing from many secondary schools. Figures obtained by Nick Gibb, the Conservative’s Shadow Schools Minister, show that ‘traditional’ subjects such as Maths, the sciences, Geography and History are being usurped by ‘easier’ subjects like Business Studies, Sociology and (wouldn’t you know it) Media Studies.

Gibb is worried about this because he says the older subjects ‘provide the rigourous academic training that enables children to succeed across a number of fields later in life’. Presumably then the new ones like Media Studies don’t. Gibb is also concerned that the government’s ‘flawed’ league tables incentivise ‘weaker schools’ to steer pupils away from what are apparently more demanding traditional subjects in order to obtain better results and advance themselves up the league tables. ‘In doing so they are cheating those children, many of whom are from more deprived backgrounds’, says Gibb.

Gibb’s concern for ‘deprived’ kids is not misplaced. The official figures show that pupils in poorer areas are less likely to pursue the ‘traditional’ subjects and there is research that suggests it is ‘traditional’ subjects that our most prestigious universities are looking for in prospective students. The upshot of this is that doing ‘easier’ A Levels might disqualify working class kids from getting into the top institutions. That’s why last week BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show was asking whether Media Studies was a ‘soft option’. Anna Fazackerley of the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, thinks it is. Last year Fazackerley co-authored a report entitled The hard truth about ‘soft’ subjects: Improving transparency about the implications of A-level subject choice (December 2008). It argued that: ‘Pupils may be unknowingly ruining their chances of getting into a leading research university by choosing so-called ‘soft’  A-level subjects, including Law, Media Studies and Psychology’. And it claimed that the ‘majority of research-intensive universities are admitting fewer ‘soft’ A-levels and more traditional A-levels in comparison with the national uptake of these subjects in schools’.

If disadvantaged school kids tend to take the sort of non-traditional subjects that the top universities dismiss then this has implications for the Labour government’s stated commitment to social mobility and widening participation in higher education. But this may be neither here nor there for the chances are that it will be the Tories in office after the next election and they plan to radically overhaul school league tables to reward schools that opt to teach “harder” qualifications. This proposal, the first to emerge from an inquiry into the examination system led by Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College, London, suggests awarding fewer points for subjects seen as easier, subjects like A level Media Studies.

But will any of this help those kids from poorer backgrounds? Actually it will probably discriminate against them further because isn’t it conceivable that Media Studies is an attractive subject to young working class kids because it is about the popular culture that they participate in? Isn’t it possible that it appears more relevant to them than traditional, canonised academic subjects such as English Literature? And is it perhaps the association of Media Studies with ‘low’ popular culture, non-elitist interests and ultimately working class kids that explains why it is disregarded by the most prestigious universities?

Critics of Media Studies, like Fazackerley, got their answer on The Media Show last week (19 August 2009) from Sally Feldman, Dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design (MAD) at  the University of Westminster . She accused them of prejudice and living in the past but highlighting the snobbishness of some higher education establishments doesn’t totally exonerate Media Studies.

This is because Media Studies wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants the academic integrity associated with ‘traditional’ disciplines while at the same time it becomes increasingly vocational in its orientation. But as Richard Sennett argues in his book The Craftsman, modern society suffers from a historical inheritance that has drawn a fault line dividing theory and practice, head and hand.

Sennett refers to two provocative categories to illustrate this. Animal laborans are the beasts of burden condemned to drudgery and routine — the factory worker, the call centre telephone operative , etc. Homo faber is the ‘judge of material labour and practice’, not Animal laborans’ colleague but his superior’. ‘Whereas Animal laborans is fixated on the question “How?” Homo fabor asks “Why?”‘

The class character of these categories is obvious and of course Media Studies will claim that it is trying to overcome such class distinctions with its stated aim of combining practice and theory. Who knows, maybe Media Studies is pioneering a new economic order and workplace that is dispensing with class distinctions, in particular those that manifest themselves in the difference between the well paid thinkers and the low paid doers, between the cerebral and the manual worker, between white and blue collar. On the other hand, perhaps it is churning out Animal laborans for these post-industrial times. In which case it’s simply reproducing the class system that pours scorn on it and its students. Time will tell.


The following was add on the 5 Feb 2010: If you’ve just read the above, you should also take a look at this

And this from the TES (22 January 2010) ‘Poor children being short-changed with soft subjects, slams Harrow head’

And this from The Guardian (22 January 2010) ‘Worthless qualifications’ give false hope to state pupils, says Harrow head’
And this from The Indepedent‘s Education supplement (16 August 2009) ‘Tories tackle the media studies menace’

23 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2009 10:58 am

    While media studies is a relatively soft option, I’m worried about trashing a subject that enables you to analyse the cultural output of our society, determining whose agenda gets filled, challenging assumptions, spotting submerged political messages, hidden social engineering, etc.

    German students are expected to end their education knowing how to dissect the rubbish published in their equivalent of The Sun. If only we could claim the same ability.

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    October 25, 2009 2:40 pm

    I think Media Studies should be a crucial subject and I don’t care if bastions of privilege like Oxford and Cambridge don’t see that. As your comment suggests, Madam M, the analysis of media and culture is vital if we are to have media-literate citizen. Unfortunately, with marketisation of higher education, media studies is becoming more embedded in the very industry it should be analysing. For instance, courses are sponsored and approved by media industry bodies, which I can’t help but feel is like asking tobacco manufactures to sponsor the human science.

  3. judithgunn permalink
    March 20, 2010 10:53 am

    Congrats on your blog – needless to say I have headed for your title article, good stuff, interesting on social mobility – I know a student – straight As and top numbers in a plethora of subjects – only 2 offers from universities – but Media Studies students – like my son – 5 offers – now at uni – a job later for either of them? – Well we’ll see!

  4. Rabelais permalink*
    March 20, 2010 11:49 am

    Hello Judith,

    Lovely to hear from you.

    The last stats I had showed that Media Studies students do rather well in terms of employment. One in 5 will get jobs in the media (which apparently is quite good) and something like 67 % of them will have jobs six months after leaving university, even if those jobs aren’t in areas they had originally aspired to. This figure compares very well with other disciplines. It seems media studies students, despite the subject’s poor reputation, are well liked by employers, a point made by Digby Jones when he was head of the CBI a few years ago. I’m sure work will be harder to come by for all graduates now so I don’t know how relevant the above stats are any longer. Still, I never fail to mention them at open days and any other occasion when I’m promoting my course. But I’m not proud of that.

    I’ve been thinking about the exchange between Fazackerley and Feldman on The Media Show. It’s not untypical, it seems to me, of how the debate about Media Studies is often played out. One side accuses it of being a ‘soft’ subject and then someone from Media Studies replies that the subject’s graduates are very employable, as Feldman did, as I recall on The Media Show. But that doesn’t really answer the charge that Media Studies is shit, academically speaking.

    My own feeling is that Media Studies has got to make an academic case for itself. And, of course, it can do this but that potential academic argument is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain while the subject becomes more and more imbedded in the media and so-called creative industries. For this reason I just don’t see people like Sally Feldman as serious advocates of Media Studies as an academic discipline. She is a broadcaster and journalist who is now Dean of a school, the mission statement of which gives no hint that Media Studies as a subject may be more than a vocational pursuit. I don’t wish to be prescriptive. People will always study the media who aspire to a job in it. But what worries me is that there is less and less room for anyone who might see Media Studies as a useful a way of thinking about contemporary questions of citizenship, politics and society.

    • judithgunn permalink
      March 24, 2010 1:40 pm

      Hmmm food for thought, I often feel divided teaching Media Studies. There is a practical element, which attracts those who think they would like a job in the media. In addition, Enrolment (we are an FE college) tend to put students on the course whose GCSE scores are weak and who they think might enjoy practical projects – but, most of those students, tend not to manage the written work effectively, which is by far, the more substantial part of the course. I do enjoy the creative stuff, it breaks up the relentless teaching hours, but the more rigorous and academic students are sometimes left frustrated, as, just as we get on to some in depth discussion, we have to slow down or – since the academic year is so short – we have to stop. Added to that, even the more motivated students in all subjects seem increasingly dependent on the teacher for explanations, and less self reliant on themselves for their advancement in a subject. The idea that a student should conduct independent research is viewed as a failure of teaching professionalism. A course that offered real academic rigour with regard to the discussion of modern media and its cultural context might, at least, attract students that are willing to give research and written work more of a chance, and thus raise the profile of the more academic elements of the subject. In the meantime it’s back to dragging coursework out of them – it’s that time of the year!

      • Rabelais permalink*
        March 25, 2010 9:36 am

        I enjoy the practical aspects of Media Studies to. I think Media Studies is just unimaginable without production – like science without experiments. The science analogy is perhaps an appropriate one here because I’ve been trying to encourage my own students to be more experimental it their production work – take the ideas introduced to them in the theoretical modules and begin to work and play with them in practice. Some are very keen to do this and enjoy challenging generic conventions, stereotypes and generally ‘pushing the envelope’. Others are determinedly resistant, largely because they don’t think theory is ‘useful’ when what they want are skills towards employability. And, of course, government policy and the institution confirm them in that conviction.

        I’ve tried to impress upon students that whether an essay or production piece, it will be assessed in an academic context. In other words, there are always marks for technical ability – the technical ability to structure and present an essay, for instance – but that the bulk of marks are for the intellectual content of what they do. So in production work I’m looking to see how they apply ideas and signs of creative and innovative thinking.

        Theory and practice, head and hand, are at the heart of Media Studies, and I make no claims to having ‘cracked it’ or really come to terms with that relationship. But what frustrates me is that in my experience there is so little debate about it.

  5. kbiyeroyrcbp permalink
    November 28, 2011 5:21 pm

    I did geography,history and business studies a level in 1995

    Business studies (in my day) is a good solid subject-much more analytical and challenging and making one actually think than either geog or hist

    Media studies… what a joke what do you do after media studies a level a joint honours degree in basket weaving with street dance?

    • Rab permalink*
      November 28, 2011 5:53 pm

      Oddly enough many A Level Media Studies students do … err, Media Studies at university. I hear tell that some even do Business Studies.

      Business Studies…. I don’t even like the sound of it!

    • eilidh m permalink
      November 30, 2011 12:38 am

      A few years later than you (1998) I did a Higher in Management and Information Studies, mainly because as a gullible teenager I’d internalized the notion that I ought to be picking subjects based on what would get me a job. It was utter shite – monkey-see-monkey-do regurgitation, with negligible intellectual challenge and nothing I’ve ever used in any job I’ve done since. Coincidentally, I also did History and Geography, which broadened my mind, sharpened my analytic skills and made me want to learn more about all sorts of things beyond those disciplines – I’m neither a historian nor a geographer, but that’s not really the point. The most valuable lesson I learned from my dalliance with Management and Information Studies is the stultifying effect of that type of ‘vocational’ ‘education’. But then maybe you just had a better teacher than I did…

  6. Judith Gunn permalink
    November 28, 2011 7:45 pm

    Media Studies graduates get jobs – their employment rate is high better than a great many other degrees which is not to criticise any form of study, but the myth of media is that it is useless, in fact graduates get work

  7. November 30, 2011 10:40 am

    An old codger writes: pah, its just fashion.

    Back in the dimly lit days of the mid-1970s the young Charlie stepped over piles of the unburied dead and dodged strikers holding the country to ransom (or so the Daily Mail archives indicate…don’t remember it quite like that myself) and made his way to a steel and glass campus university in the Midlands countryside to do the terribly modern subject of Sociology. Of course its so-called modernity may have come as something of a surprise to the ghosts of the long dead Marx, Weber and Durkheim, but let’s not go there, let’s just luxuriate in the warm memory of being an undergraduate reading a subject which contemporary popular culture – and many of my contemporaries – held to have roughly the same intrinsic intellectual content as a warm bucket of spit.

    &, lo it came to pass that Sociology is now on the ‘good’ A Level list for Oxbridge.

    I give it a generation for Media Studies to go through the same transformation.Well, as long as you don’t get bullied into just producing technicians….

  8. Rab permalink*
    December 1, 2011 6:47 pm

    Of all the posts on Media Studies is Shit, this one (and the one about Gene Hunt) get constant ‘traffic’ – not so many comments (until now), but loads of visitors.

    Coincidently, I’ve been arguing and fighting with industry people about some of these very questions all week and might try to write something about it shortly.

  9. Jen permalink
    October 22, 2012 1:17 pm

    I think it’s a little bit hilarious that somebody creating a piece of media and citing many other pieces of media, the majority of which have spoken about press releases (oh look, another source of media) and ANALYSED IT IN DETAIL WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DO IN A MEDIA COURSE has been quite so harsh and detrimental about a course that encourages people to actually think about what they are doing and seeing, and to not just sit back and listen to what they are told in the newspapers. And seeing as these newspapers seem to be telling them not to take Media (because why would a journalist, after all, want talented young people to take a course that might cause them to become journalists in turn and make the competition stiffer) it’s a bit odd that they must have taken similar courses and learned all the skills Media Studies teaches in order to be able to do their jobs.

    You people are completely insane, small minded sheep if you think studying the control and influence government, film industries and advertising companies have on making you the people you are isn’t important and is ‘soft’.

    • Rab permalink*
      October 22, 2012 1:30 pm

      Welcome Jen,
      I’m not sure who you’re comments are aimed at. If it’s a criticism of me and the commentators on this thread, then I think you need to read the post and the replies again. Nobody here thinks that media studies is a waste of time.

      I, and at least one other commentator on this thread, teach media studies.

      As I say in reply to Madam Miaow (above), ‘I think Media Studies should be a crucial subject and I don’t care if bastions of privilege like Oxford and Cambridge don’t see that… the analysis of media and culture is vital if we are to have media-literate citizen.

      Which seems to correspond with your own position. But I add this caveat:
      ‘Unfortunately, with marketisation of higher education, media studies is becoming more embedded in the very industry it should be analysing.’

      This is a point perhaps made more eloquently here:

  10. May 4, 2013 10:10 pm

    You should be a part of a contest for one of the finest blogs on the web.
    I will highly recommend this blog!

  11. May 26, 2013 4:56 pm

    i wonder what you think of this…it’s an entertaining thing to watch,and once it gets going it’s relative to what you’ve written ….having never been to uni,i’m totally out of my depth on this subject,so i’m not qualified to have any opinion,but hopefully this is at least a fun thing for you and your readers to watch.

    • Rab permalink*
      May 27, 2013 7:15 pm

      Brilliant, Mary. Many thanks for this. I love Will Self, so much so that every so often I try to read and understand one of his books. I heard him speak in Northampton about 5 years ago when he read from his novel The Book of Dave. He was fantastic… really funny and witty.

  12. May 22, 2014 8:30 am

    This thing is so stupid. I got 100% in all three sciences at GCSE and yet I chose to take Media Studies at A Level becasue I like it. Thats all not because I thought it would be easier but becasue it intrests me CHRIST why is it not seen as equal


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