The media industry is changing fast, but universities aren't keeping up | Lisette Johnston

For more than 10 years, I was fortunate enough to work in two camps, bridging academia and the creative industries. I lived what felt like parallel lives: by day I sent journalists to cover the attempted coup in Turkey, by night I’d teach camerawork and mark essays on gatekeeping theory.

At the time I was working at the BBC and felt my role as an editor helped inform my teaching. Now some of my former students and mentees have successful media careers of their own. One is an editor on BBC Breakfast, another the chair of a global non-profit and another a successful social media manager for a luxury brand. Yet speaking to them, much of what got them there wasn’t the content of their lessons.

Their testimonies have made me understand that media courses need to be updated to meet the skillsets required of those aiming for careers in the creative industries: from film production to journalism, gaming to digital marketing. We need to have cutting-edge courses to keep up with the fast pace of change.

But too often, the university set-up makes it hard to alter courses and keep up to speed. I know one lecturer at a London institution who had to wait four years to get his module on to the curriculum. This makes it harder to diversify, reflect the needs of industry and keep abreast of changes in terms of employable skills.

This is not just my opinion; research says the same thing. A report undertaken by the Work Foundation for the British Film Institute in 2017 raised concerns by employers around education and skills training. The audit found current provision not fit for purpose, with a confusing array of initiatives, limited careers advice and guidance, and a lack of clear progression routes from education to work.

Within the education system, a large proportion of learning is concentrated in general areas, such as media and communication studies, which may not be delivering enough technical skills to meet skills shortages. The problem is that universities lag too far behind: virtual reality and 360 video are still seen as groundbreaking new courses, when they are no longer novel in the industry. Equally, there needs to be a more interdisciplinary approach: digital analytics and data are not solely for marketers and computer science students, and we should all be able to shoot and edit.

At the same time, industry has much to learn from education to stay relevant. While studying for my PhD, I found some fantastic research on user-generated content by Dr Claire Wardle, who now heads up First Draft News, an organisation that fights disinformation. Trying to get media organisations to develop best practice based on this type of research should be a no-brainer – but in my experience it has been a struggle.

This segregation of academia and industry is likewise seen in the attitudes of some educators who do not want to teach practical skills, or in professors reluctant to bring their expertise into the mainstream. A lot of academics want their work published in journals and so will not hear of it being “dumbed down” or going on to a third-party site such as Medium, The Conversation or the BBC Expert Network. This means the wider public miss out on important research.

One of the most effective ways to ensure that students are learning the right skills is to integrate vocational studies with industry. This can be through placements and internships, or through bringing media practitioners to the students, which already happens in applied sciences and business courses. This does not alter the need for academics for some parts of the student journey: just because someone is successful in industry does not mean they can teach creative, digital and entrepreneurial skills.

The best media courses will diversify their provision to future-proof students as much as possible for a career in the creative industries. This isn’t the easy option, but it is arguably the most rewarding, both for educators and their cohorts.

  • Lisette Johnston is a former BBC World News editor and the head of school for the BA in content, media and film production at ScreenSpace, a collaboration between MetFilm School and the University of West London

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