The annual NCTJ debate: How about thinking of the students?

RATHER like the sudden rise in Nurofen sales in university towns, the annual bust up over the value or otherwise of NCTJ accreditation for journalism degrees has become a sure sign that the autumn term is upon us.

This year, it was a chap called Brian McNair, who used to run the journalism course at Strathclyde before going to live in Australia. In a blog post on Allmediascotland, he suggests the reason why the journalism course there got a low satisfaction rating in the National Students Survey was because he had decided to opt out of the NCTJ accreditation scheme.

His argument is a well-told one: The NCTJ demands are out of date, shorthand is now less important than many other skills and anyway, the sort of ‘traditional’ journalism jobs which demand someone has sat their proficiency tests are drying up anyway.

The NCTJ, in its usual fashion, hit back and before you can say ‘how many words a minute’ it was the hot topic here, there and everywhere.

But what has been lacking so far is what is best for the many students who undertake three-year journalism degrees at establishments across the country. McNair quoted a statistic that ‘traditional’ journalism jobs had reduced by 30% in recent years. Given that the regional press is (I think) still the largest employer of reporters,  I would argue that makes offering students the NCTJ all the more important.

If a student is going to the trouble of spending thousands of pounds a year to go to university to study journalism with a view to becoming a journalist at the end, is it unreasonable to expect they can leave university with the qualification much of the industry still expects? Of course, there’s the option of doing it via some sort of post-grad course or an intensive course elsewhere, but it does seem to be an unfair extra burden on the students.

McNair says: I think we replaced the NCTJ curriculum with something better: journalism education focused on the high end skills of good writing, incisive analysis, rigorous research, strategic thinking, problem solving, story telling, the sociological and cultural context within which journalism is made and consumed.

All excellent stuff but how is a news editor or editor (depending on the size of newsroom) supposed to know all that when going through a stack of CVs? Some universities have such superb reputations for journalism that they can get away with abandoning the NCTJ – Prof Roy Greenslade’s City University in London being one. But there aren’t many in that situation.

One newspaper I work with recently had over 150 applications for a trainee’s job. No surprise that having achieved (or having sat and awaiting the results of) the proficiency test increased the chances of making it to interview.

The style of the NCTJ system may be out of date, but the skills it teaches aren’t. News editors know trainee reporters need coaching once they are in the job, but seeing those magic four letters on a CV means they can assume the reporter knows the media law s/he needs to know, has an idea of how to cover councils and has the shorthand required to keep up.

And so to shorthand. Pointless these days? Andy Dickinson floated that question after seeing a report which talked about a reduction in court reporting. I’d argue not. Yes, we can have laptops everywhere these days, not to mention state of the art voice recorders. But notepad, pen and 100wpm will always been more fail-proof than anything which involves wires and a charger. So yes, it’s still important, and to me a key tool a journalist needs.

Universities such as the University of Central Lancashire and Cardiff show it’s possible to combine NCTJ accreditation with a syllabus which helps equip students with the skills to stand out.

Not surprisingly, the NCTJ hit back hard this week. Chairman Kim Fletcher said: “It’s good for employers because it provides objective evidence of competence. It’s good for the rest of us because, while there are many excitements in having anyone publish words, pictures and sound… there’s a certain relief in knowing that some of it is produced to exacting standards of objectivity.”

Again, I think this forgets about the students involved. If the NCTJ is a foot in the door, then some of the skills McNair talks about can help the job seeker secure employment. Are the core areas of public affairs, law and shorthand really enough these days? No, in my opinion, they aren’t. But they shouldn’t be dismissed.

The same applies when sitting the senior exams, which were quaint and out of date when I sat them a decade ago. At the time,  the tutor at our cramming week said: “Forget everything you’ve learnt in the newsroom, this is about doing it the NCTJ’s way.” And while that did involve proving the skills and knowledge you had in the newsroom, it was applied in a such a way for the exams as to be so far removed from real life as is possible. Sepia-tinted didn’t begin to cover it.

Most newsrooms can point to journalists who got in without their proficiency tests sewn up. Editors also place value on local knowledge, on ability to find stories and, increasingly, an enthusiasm for multimedia (I hope) and will make exceptions for the right candidates.

But this annual stand-off between disgruntled university bosses and the NCTJ isn’t actually helping the students involved. Yes, there are many journalists leaving university and not following a ‘traditional’ route – even if we hadn’t suffered the recession I suspect that would be the case, as the number of journalist students has out-numbered the number of potential vacancies for many years – but that doesn’t change the fact that the skills the NCTJ holds so dear are as important now as they ever have been. Surely there must be a way of combining these with the other skills which journalists required, without making students choose between them.

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11 comments

  1. Great post Dave.

    I think the fact that this debate is a perennial one shows that everyone is giving thought to the students. It’s a competitive world out there when it cones to recruitment. The consumer us vet discerning. We have to be honest about what they are signing up to and what it means. That’s why I think its more honest to talk about utility rather than some broad based blather about the essential nature if the nctj or the superior rigour of a uni course.

    Dave Lee commented that my shorthand post had a whiff of 2003 about it. But I make no apologies for tipping in to the debate.(but maybe a small one for the devils advocate stance) I’d rather we had it and it generated solid, helpful reflection like this that is contemporary to those looking to enter the newspaper industry now. Not 2003 or whenever else some commentators hark back to.

    1. Hi Andy, I’m not sure your post did have a whiff of 2003 about it. Your post prompted a discussion about the current use of a skill which has traditionally been very important. It’s a discussion which will come up time and again (and rightly so) but at the moment, I fall into the camp that it’s just as important as it ever has been. To that end, I see your post as an example of a discussion which has the student at the heart of it.

      On the other hand, the annual NCTJ v (some) universities doesn’t appear to have the students at the centre. It feels more as though there are two sides which are determined to prove their vision of journalism is the right one. As it is, any university which strips out the NCTJ element is putting students who wish to enter the regional press (still a gateway into TV, radio and the national press) at a disadvantage. On the other hand, while the skills the NCTJ focus on are so very important, does there need to be more to it? I’d argue probably. But that debate never moves anywhere.

  2. What a superb post, Dave … someone who sees it from the students’ point of view. After all, without them, educators have nothing. It puzzles me why we have to endure this annual stand-off between the NCTJ and the unis … neither side has to justify their existence. Ultimately, results in terms of jobs will speak for themselves, and people will continue to vote with their feet.

    1. I wouldn’t disagree with the sentiment Cleland but we do have to justify our existence. Students do vote with their feet so we have to make sure that what we offer is right for them, help them make informed choices and make sure that we deliver on that. And that’s before you factor in the Government and quality/standards orgs.

      It’s a buyers market out there and the best they can do is be informed in the choices they make. It’s clear there is no ‘one way’ in to journalism. The NCTJ route might have a lot going for it but it’s just one way. Just like uni is one way.

      In the absence of anything singular the best we can do is be honest with them. Be honest with the debate, like this, and get them involved.

      1. Well said Andy – how many of the universities which run journalism courses without NCTJ qualifications make it clear that not have the qualification can be a big obstacle?

    2. Hi Cleland. This is just a personal opinion, but for as long as I can remember, UCLAN has produced very good journalists who settled into newsrooms very quickly and delivered great stories. They have much more than just the NCTJ skills, yet they also have the NCTJ qualification. To me, that proves that the argument universities use for pulling out of the NCTJ course isn’t very strong – if UCLAN can get the mix right, why can’t others?

  3. Hi Dave,

    This is a good read and you echo my sentiments over at http://nctjandbeyond.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/is-a-storm-brewing/. I would agree that the indecision isn’t helpful for the students, as I am someone who has turned to both Uni and the NCTJ to try and arm myself with enough education to get a journalism job.

    I would be interested to know your thoughts on the NCTJs new and updated syllabus, the Diploma in Journalism, which looks at more multimedia training? Is it a sign that the NCTJ recognise that they need to move with the times?

    1. Hi Matt, thanks for the comment. Hopefully it is a sign of that, but I can’t see why the annual debate can’t move into a constructive discussion on how to ensure that journalism students get everything they need.

  4. A very shrewd post, Dave. I agree with you 99%. The other 1% only creeps in because of the way that you cast the debate as universities v. the NCTJ. Please remember that it is only some universities that have issues with accreditation. Many of us do combine the NCTJ syllabus with a more academic approach, and that is precisely because we place the students centrestage in our thinking.

    1. Hi David. Thanks for the comment. You’re quite right – it’s some universities rather than all, and I should have made that clearer.

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