He has a point. Not about closing colleges, but about the level of education that journalists need. To get into the industry these days, you pretty much need a journalism degree, or a degree in another subject plus an NCTJ. But what do we do that requires degree-level education? Unless you work for a subject-specific publication (medical, business, etc), your degree is unlikely to teach you how to do your job – or guarantee you one. That’s a fairly dodgy investment, particularly now that it’ll set you back at least £30k – for the chance of a £15k starting salary.
I studied Engish at university, but it didn’t teach me any of the skills I use now. And don’t give me “life skills and discipline” – I learned more of those in the previous two years, which I spent working full-time. And the two years before that when I worked 22 hours a week while doing my A-levels. You teach yourself life skills and discipline, or you don’t. What I did at university was have fun, read some great books, find out that I wasn’t quite as clever as I’d thought I might be, and learn to be proper middle class-like, at least most of the time. Oh, and get the piece of paper that enabled me to do everything I’ve done since. But did it teach me how to do it? Hell no.
That wasn’t enough to get me into journalism, though. So three years ago, after a few years teaching our fair language to various foreign types, willing and unwilling (there’s no better way to whip your grammar into shape, by the way), I spent £3,000 on an NCTJ and subbing course – a terrifying amount of money, considering that I was working in a mental health centre for £7 an hour at the time. Again, it didn’t teach me how to write – I already knew that. It didn’t really teach me to sub, either, because I kinda knew that too – but it did give me some good practice. What it taught me were the basics of libel, copyright and privacy law, which are essential, a grounding in public affairs – local and national – and a working knowledge of Quark (which really isn’t as different from InDesign as people will have you believe). It also boosted my confidence, which is something worth having.
Eight years after leaving university, I’m still £15,000 in debt (though that pales in comparison to what today’s graduates will owe). And I do begrudge it a little. I think the NCTJ was money well spent, but I wish I hadn’t spent all that cash on going to uni. It was fun, but it was frivolous. I would rather have worked then, or studied vocationally, and have the luxury of considering studying now. I’d work a lot harder now, I can tell you that.
Anyhoo. It’s all very well saying that you shouldn’t need a degree, but in reality, do journalist wannabes have a choice? Mr MacKenzie says: “My advice to any 18-year-old is try and achieve three decent A-levels, go to a local paper, then to a regional, and then head out on to nationals or magazines by 21-22.” Sorted. What are you waiting for, bright young things?
To be fair, I have seen editors hire people without degrees (recently, within the past three years), but they are the exception. It is very rare. Generally, if you don’t have one, your CV will go straight in the reject pile (I’ve seen this too).
I’m torn. I don’t think a degree should be necessary, but equally, I’m not sure that 18-year-olds have enough knowledge and experience to write about… well, much (though whether graduates do either is up for debate). Apprenticeships would be a lovely compromise, but they don’t really exist any more. Vocational courses are an option, but again, what would they actually teach?
My own opinion, woolly as it is, is that you need a bit of life first. I’ve worked in/on pubs, restaurants, cafes, farms, nurseries, factories, estate agents, town planning offices, social services, mental health centres, and probably more that I’ve forgotten. I’ve taught English as a foreign language in Japan, Italy and the UK. I somehow ended up teaching an adult education course called “introduction to computing” to Sudanese and Eritrean female immigrants, who couldn’t speak English and had never touched a mouse before. It makes for an untidy CV, but a broad range of experience, which I think is invaluable.
My advice to an 18-year-old, for what it’s worth, is yes, get those A-levels. Then, educate yourself by finding out about the world. Work in it. If you’re going to write about people, you need to give yourself the chance to be one first. Earn a wage, and blog about it. Write about it. Send stories to your local paper. Heck, send stories to the nationals. The worst they can do is ignore you – and if they do that, put it up on your own blog instead. Tweet. Get to know journalists in your area (geographical area and interest area/s). Read the news, every day.
There’s no harm in trying to take Mr MacKenzie’s advice at the same time. Just be prepared that it may not be quite that simple. Most of us have to make compromises. How many young folk out there are dreaming of breaking news in the world of mushroom farming, or the latest development in steam irons? Not many – but that’s what I spent my first three years in journalism doing, and I did my best to do it well. In my spare time, I blogged, tweeted, charmed and – ugh – networked my way into some shifts at the Guardian, The Times and The Sunday Times. For a year and a half I worked six days a week (the day job, be it mushrooms or irons, plus a shift or two at the weekend), until eventually I felt I could tip the balance and go freelance entirely. So far, it’s working out. What comes next, I’m not sure. But what I do know is it’s a great industry to work in. Good luck!
I just asked my editor here at Which?, Martyn Hocking, whether he’d hire someone who didn’t have a degree. He said: “Absolutely. We hire them based on their experience and what work they’ve done before. The exception is our graduate programme, for obvious reasons. But I’d be much more impressed if someone pitched up here aged 23 with a couple of years of relevant experience already under their belt than if they showed me a media studies certificate.”
Though of course, where you get that experience remains the question.
In a triumph of irony, the article was written not by Mr MacKenzie himself, but by a journalism student. The Independent has now added the following footnote: “This is an amended version of an interview with Kelvin MacKenzie by Harriet Thurley for City University’s XCity Magazine”