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Not immutable: Stephen King says great writers may be born but good ones are made (Stephen King CC BY-SA 4.0)


On the face of it, there has never been a better time to break into the arts, television, music or journalism. Look at the universities, and you can think that all the bragging about London being the creative capital of Europe, and British cultural dominance replacing British imperial dominance, is a simple statement of fact.

Our institutes of higher education offer training for every type of creative career.  You can learn how to act, paint and play classical music, as you always could.  But universities now train students for careers that no one imagined needed an academic qualification until recently. Every variety of print and television journalism is on offer up to and including sports journalism. (The pedagogues at the University of East Anglia have stepped forward to intellectualise this rough trade.) Every variety of film-making is covered too. Then we have courses on game design, game development, creative writing (both poetry and prose), animation, popular music (this at London’s Goldsmiths University), arts administration, children’s literature, creative and cultural entrepreneurship (“to commercialise on your creative and cultural practices and/or knowledge” — Goldsmiths again), musical theatre (Guildford  University offers both the singing and the dancing), and arts festival management (a niche occupation filled by sharp-eyed dons at Leicester’s De Montfort university).

As I learned journalism on the job, so to speak, I could sneer. Indeed, I find it hard not to sneer. But even this old hack must admit there is no harm in learning about any kind of work before starting it.

In his excellent guide on how to write, Stephen King scorned the idea that “writing ability is fixed and immutable”. Teaching had its place, if you recognised its limitations. He divided writers into four types: bad, competent, good and great. No amount of teaching could turn a bad writer into a competent writer, he said. Bad writers should give up and try something else. Equally, no teacher could produce a great writer. We cannot understand genius, let alone teach it. But it is possible “with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one”. And so it is, as anyone who has sweated to improve their prose knows.

I might complain that across the aptly- named “culture industries” managers have passed the cost of training to potential applicants. They no longer pick promising recruits and pay them while they learn. They expect the graduate to arrive fully formed and fully trained, and to work for nothing for months as an intern.

An outrageous exploitation of the young, no doubt, but the new system has its advantages. Pretty much anyone with a basic aptitude can now take a shot at a creative career. Statistics are hard to come by, but I found that between 2004 and 2012, the number of UK film students grew from 1,625 to 5,530 — a 240 per cent increase. Last year, meanwhile, 77 universities offered journalism courses which provided vocational training for jobs as reporters, editors, photographers and cameramen and women in digital and print.

Students may not appreciate it, but there is an advantage in not having to pay upfront for their education or on taking their chances with the ration system direct state funding would bring. “Student loans” and “student debt” are misleading terms. In reality, graduates must pay an additional tax only when their annual income reaches £21,000. If it does, they are liable. If it does not, the taxpayer, who funded their courses, must bear the loss. Today’s young have more chances to fulfil their ambitions than any generation in history. But here’s the rub. The true scandal in higher education is that only a minority, perhaps a tiny minority, ever will.

Degree misselling is just as widespread as financial misselling, but no admissions tutor is ever arrested, and no university is ever forced to repay the money it has taken from the taxpayer or graduate.  Because universities take no risks, they can recruit with abandon and condemn thousands of young people a year to disappointment.

Acting has always been precarious. By definition, only a few can find fame. Equity found that half its members earned less than £10,000 in 2013. Casting Call Pro, a website, found that just 2 per cent of actors earned more than £20,000 a year. These, remember, are drama-school graduates who are still working or trying to work as actors. Those who picked up their debts and left the profession weren’t covered.

In my own business, it is simply disgraceful that 77 universities are taking money for journalism courses when the chances of their graduates finding work are vanishing by the day. Without boring you with the gruesome details, no news organisation in the Western world has found a sustainable business model. Jobs are disappearing everywhere, and every journalist views the future with alarm.

Yet turn to the propaganda of the highest-ranked journalism courses in the UK and you will find only the patter of snake-oil salesmen. London’s City University assures potential customers that its “Journalism MA prepares you for a first job in newspaper journalism” and boasts about how well its graduates have done. No mention of the internet destroying reporters’ jobs. No warning that students’ time and money may well be wasted.

Westminster University says: “Our students have a very high success rate in gaining employment in the media industries, and recent graduates have gone to network radio, national newspapers and magazines, and major television companies.” I’m sure they have. But as the years go by, fewer will.  Cardiff University promises “to equip young journalists with the skills to start their careers in multiplatform newsrooms”. Just so. But how useful will these skills be as newsrooms shrink and close? Nowhere in all of academia’s exhortations to sign up and pay up could I find warnings of the risks ahead.

Nearly all my colleagues who have lost their jobs now teach on journalism courses. One told me he was not allowed to “depress” his students by telling them that, if they are looking for a paid job which will allow them to buy a flat one day and start a family, journalism is now about as reliable a career as blacksmithing or coal mining.

The absurdity of the creative industries is exposed by his position and that of so many others. People who lose their jobs in the arts and media discover the only work available is to teach students, most of whom will not be able to find work in the arts and media either. One day the same scandal that hit the banks will hit the universities, and it won’t be a day too soon.

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graduatewoman
July 18th, 2016
1:07 PM
This article seems to me to be true of a lot of areas of Higher Education - I've met Physics PhD students saying it is not likely they will find long term work in Physics/Astronomy when they complete, and certainly vast numbers of graduates in Environmental Science, plant science, zoology etc don't find work in their field - nobody seems to want to pay for conserving the environment (unpaid internships abound of course!)

Tim Holmes
March 6th, 2016
6:03 PM
I doubt Nick Cohen will read this but I have spent 20 year teaching young people (and some older ones) to become journalists at Cardiff and I can swear on anything Nick prefers that the great majority – 9 out of 10 – of graduates from the postgraduate courses in Newspaper, Broadcast and Magazine journalism have secured work in journalism. Of course Nick might not be quite up to speed with the kinds of journalism jobs that are available to those with the right skills but one of the things we continue to be VERY keen on at Cardiff is the need to check the accuracy of a story BEFORE publishing. But they probably don't teach that at the university of learning on the job, so I can't blame him, or sneer at him, for not knowing about it or how to do it.

windter
March 2nd, 2016
4:03 PM
"Nowhere in all of academia’s exhortations to sign up and pay up could I find warnings of the risks ahead." - I can sort of see the point here, but a good deal of your 'examples' of misselling aren't actually misselling at all. It's not misselling to list the achievements of your graduates. To force Universities, as you seem to be suggesting, to accompany any reference to future jobs with 'these industries are in fact not as healthy as they once were' would mean that every single degree was to allowed to discuss past success, since in the future those industries might not be as viable as they were before. A ridiculous idea. And to continue: "London’s City University assures potential customers that its “Journalism MA prepares you for a first job in newspaper journalism” and boasts about how well its graduates have done. No mention of the internet destroying reporters’ jobs. No warning that students’ time and money may well be wasted." - Because that 'may well be' says it all. They may well - but they may well not. There are still a lot of jobs relating to journalism that these degrees can prepare students for. One of the people you retweet most regularly (James Bloodworth), who seems to be doing ok for himself, is a recent City Journalism MA graduate FFS. What you're asking for here - that Universities are pessimistic about the career chances of their graduates in their *marketing material* - is just silly. Trumpeting success stories, and also trumpeting a university's preparing its students for post-graduation employment, is not selling snake oil. The examples you quote actually demonstrate this. and: "Because universities take no risks, they can recruit with abandon and condemn thousands of young people a year to disappointment." - actually there are pretty serious risks related to e.g. the rate of non-completions, lower entry tariffs, employment outcomes after graduation. They're called league tables, and will shortly be assessed by government centrally too, in the TEF. But knowing that would involve your having done some actual research as opposed to literally entering one thing in google - which is very obviously how you found the numbers you cite here (I fired the same phrase into google, you don't even acknowledge your source! These stats weren't 'hard to come by' at all, this probably took you 30 seconds and you gave up then). One of the main reasons why journalism graduates can't get work is that lazy relics are still inexplicably indulged thanks to who they know, not what they know. And you're one of the highest-profile examples of this.

Roger Hicks
February 27th, 2016
2:02 PM
An interesting and depressing article. So what is the underlying cause of this madness? I think I've discovered it. It wasn't this particular insanity that I was trying to understand, but others, and there are many of them. I call them the "insanities of normality" because, well, because they are so normal and thus go largely unnoticed, the human brain being naturally inclined to think that what is "normal" must also be OK. And here we have the underlying cause: the human brain, which evolved in a very different environment from the one humans created themselves, the present artificial environment of human society and civilisation itself. There is a naive assumption - even by academics, who should know better - that we created this artificial environment to suit ourselves, but even just a cursory knowledge of history reveals this to be nonsense. Then again, it depends on your perspective. If you belong to one of society's favoured elites, as academic, of course, do, you may well be justified in view civilisation having been shaped in one's own self-interests, but not in the interests of society at large. Academics are far from being society's only or most favoured elite, but they are the most influential, because they are the one's everyone else looks to as authorities in understanding society, the state and civilisation. They create the narratives which the rest of society embraces (certainly, the mainstream ones). It's a narrative which rationalises and defends the state and status quo on which these same academics depend for their livelihoods and high social status. They teach us that the purpose of the state - certainly the democratic state - its institutions and economy is to SERVE society at large, but it is not. There primary purpose is to facilitate society's SELF-exploitation, to the personal advantage of its ruling elites and favoured (especially wealthy and academic/formerly priestly) clients, at the expense and ultimate self-destruction of society at large. This is how it has always been, and why all civilisations are bound to a cycle of boom and bust (not to be confused with economic boom and bust, although the two are, no doubt, related). Western civilisation has been experiencing a prolonged and astonishing boom over these past few centuries, which, however, will soon be coming to an end - unless we, i.e. academics, quickly recognise and develop an understanding of its cause, so that it might yet be averted, or at least mitigated, thereby facilitating its survival and recovery. It is difficult knowing where to begin, but here might not be a bad place: http://unapprovedcomments.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/the-wests-overreaction-...

ther
February 27th, 2016
1:02 PM
It makes me as mad as hell that the misselling of university degree courses in the area of the applied arts really is as bad or worse than has ever happened in banking and financial services sectors. It's a crime happening in plain sight, perpetrated by smug people in the public sector who tell themselves that they are the good folk. Another educational sector that I know well is fashion and textiles where courses have proliferated. In a Country and Continent almost without a clothing or textile industry to work in, thousands of deluded young fashion graduates annually find themselves as clothing or coffee shop assistants.

Truculent Sheep
February 27th, 2016
10:02 AM
"Students may not appreciate it, but there is an advantage in not having to pay upfront for their education" This is sort of like how borrowing money from a loan shark is advantageous because they don't start breaking your legs immediately. Or to put it another way, how much did established journalists have to cough up for their education and training? It's very easy to impose on others that which one would find personally intolerable. This is, in any case, a sneering and ill-tempered article, mocking the young and pissing on their achievements.

Andy
February 27th, 2016
9:02 AM
Whatever the dreadful state of affairs in journalistic careers I think there is merit in the advice for prospective university students to never study a subject that was not taught there 50 years ago.

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