AddThis SmartLayers

Who studies journalism and why? By Mark Spilsbury

This week HoldtheFrontPage has been serialising a major new book looking at the future of journalism entitled Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print?

Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, the book will be published by Abramis
Academic Publishing next month.

In the last of our extracts, economic researcher Mark Spilsbury, who authored an NCTJ report on the future of journalism training in 2012, focuses on the question: who studies journalism and why?

He concludes that despite concerns about over-supply of journalism courses and the impact of digital technologies on employment, journalism students remain very employable.


5399334-4ed1-sm-markspilsbury-600x400Much negative publicity surrounds the newspaper industry and the employment of journalists, yet there appears to be no shortage of people wanting to study journalism. This chapter examines who studies journalism and why, using data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Authority. The availability of this data has been made possible by funding from the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), as part of its wider research programme looking at the diversity of the journalism profession.

Numbers studying journalism and type of study

For the most recent year that data is available (2014/15), there were just over 12,000 students studying on a Journalism course at one of 72 Higher Education Institutions in the UK. These are ‘all students’ (i.e. including students on each year at a university): there were 5,280 students in their first year of Journalism study (split between 1,525 at postgraduate level and 3,755 at undergraduate level).

The majority (83 per cent) are studying at an undergraduate level. 95 per cent are studying full-time courses, with 5 per cent on a part-time basis. Journalism students are:

• more likely to be studying at an undergraduate level (83 per cent compared to 76 per cent of all other subjects), and
• more likely to be studying full-time (95 per cent compared to 75 per cent).

The patterns within this are the same for Journalism as for other subjects – those studying at an undergraduate level are more likely to be studying full-time (97 per cent compared to 85 per cent of those studying at a postgraduate level).

Who is studying journalism?

HESA collect a range of data on students studying in Higher Education and this allows us to understand the nature of students studying Journalism and (as important) how this compares to the characteristics of students on other courses.

In this section, we separate this analysis between undergraduates and postgraduates to make sure that we compare, as far as possible, like with like This data shows that for undergraduates:

• the majority of Journalism students are female (57 per cent), but that this is little different from the figure across all other subjects (56 per cent);
• 82 per cent of Journalism students who gave their ethnicity were white, with 8 per cent black, 4 per cent Asian and 6 per cent ‘other’. This is a higher proportion of white students than for all other subjects (79 per cent) and a lower proportion of Asian students (10 per cent) for all other subjects);
• 9 per cent of undergraduate Journalism students are known to have a disability, which compares to 12 per cent of students across all other subjects; and
• 73 per cent of undergraduate Journalism students were 20 and under, 22 per cent aged 21-24, with small proportions in older age groups. This is a different pattern to those studying all other subjects where far fewer (52 per cent) are aged 20 and under and higher proportions are at older age levels.

The make-up of postgraduates shows that:

• the majority of postgraduate Journalism students are female (62 per cent compared to 38 per cent of men);
• the majority of postgraduate Journalism students are white 86 per cent – a higher proportion than for postgraduates studying all other subjects;
• 7 per cent of postgraduate Journalism students are known to have a disability, which is the same as postgraduate students across all other subjects; and
• the majority of postgraduate Journalism students are aged 21-24 (61 per cent) with 20 per cent aged 25-29. Some 18 per cent are aged 30 and over. This compares with 33 per cent aged 21-24 for students of all other subjects, 25 per cent aged 25-29 and 42 per cent aged 30-plus.

This difference in age distribution is of interest: it may suggest that people are more likely to study postgraduate journalism immediately (or soon after) after their first degree rather than waiting later, as seems to be the case for other subjects. It has been suggested elsewhere (Journalism at Work 1, 2012, published by the NCTJ) that entry into a journalism job is increasingly dependent of individuals having a postgraduate qualification and this may be what is being
reflected in this data.

So, in terms of physical characteristics, Journalism students look very much like the rest of the student body: a little more likely to be from white ethnic groups, less likely to have a known disability and (considering those on undergraduate courses), more likely to be young, but overall not in marked differences. Other areas of concern do not relate to physical characteristics, but
background – the issue of diversity and the impact of social class on studying Journalism.

It is worth noting that when collecting details on education and socioeconomic class, the HESA data has a reasonably high proportions of gaps, with respondents refusing to answer or just because of missing data. In these cases – shown in the table below – we have shown the distributions with this missing data included and with the table re-based to remove them from the percentages. These data gaps are particularly severe for students studying at postgraduate level. We have no way of knowing if there is any significant bias in these nonresponses: whether, for example, people from the privately-funded education sector or higher socio-economic classes are more (or less) likely to report their school type or socio-economic class, so on this basis we assume that they have the same distribution as those who have given a response.

The first thing to note is that the data on ‘school type’ does not show the pattern that we may have expected. Research from the Sutton Trust2 has previously shown that half of ‘leading journalists’ were privately educated: we might also expect, therefore, that we would see a preponderance of privatelyeducated students studying Journalism, but the opposite is true for the undergraduate level. The data shows that 82 per cent of Journalism undergraduates were funded in the state system, with only 3 per cent being educated privately, although we have to bear in mind that there is missing data for a significant 16 per cent. If we remove these from the base, the data suggests that 97 per cent of undergraduate Journalism students were state-educated. The comparable proportions for undergraduates studying all other subjects are 91 per cent state-educated and 9 per cent from the private system. The data for postgraduates is similar: removing those for whom there is no data, it suggests that 97 per cent of those on a postgraduate Journalism were from a state school or college, with 3 per cent from a private school. This is broadly similar to the data for all other postgraduate subjects, where 99 per cent were state-educated.

In terms of socio-economic class, the re-based data shows that 63 per cent of undergraduate students studying Journalism were from socio-economic groups 1-3, similar to the 65 per cent of students studying all other undergraduate subjects. For postgraduate study, 66 per cent of those studying Journalism were from socio-economic groups 1-3 (compared to 74 per cent for all other postgraduate subjects) and 29 per cent in Groups 4-7 (compared to 24 per cent for all other postgraduate subjects).

Why do they study journalism?

Individuals will have many reasons for going into Higher Education to study Journalism (or, indeed, any other subject). However, it is generally assumed that some of the main reasons are to (i) secure a job at the end of it and (ii) get a job in a field that they want. HESA again provides us information on these aspects via its ‘Destinations of Leavers Survey’ which follows leavers from HE six months after they have graduated. Again, we can compare Journalism students with students studying all other subjects.

On the first of these Journalism students are likely to be in work and more likely to be in work than leavers who studied other subjects. Some 82 per cent of Journalism students are in work (64 per cent full-time, 17 per cent part-time and 1 per cent ‘primarily’ in work), compared to 75 per cent of students of all other subjects (60, 12 and 3 per cent respectively). Journalism students are less likely to have continued their studying (6 per cent compared to 16 per cent). They are, however, more likely to be unemployed: 7 per cent compared to 4 per cent. There is a distinction between employment rates of undergraduate and postgraduate Journalism students. Some 89 per cent of postgraduate students were in employment six months after graduation, compared to 77 per cent of undergraduate Journalism students. The difference is almost all made up of the differing proportions who have moved into further study (9 per cent of undergraduates, 1 per cent for postgraduates).

As to whether this is a job the individual wanted, this is more difficult to assess. Our main guide here is the occupation the individual is doing some six months after graduation – which in the HESA data is coded to the Office for National Statistics Standard Occupational Classification. From this we can see, in broad terms, what the individuals who studied journalism are doing in work. This shows that 22 per cent of those who studied Journalism at university were working as a journalist some six months later, with a further 5 per cent working in the (perhaps related) field of Public Relations. If we again remove the ‘Don’t knows’ from the data, this suggests that over a quarter (26 per cent) of those leaving university after studying Journalism are working as a journalist, with a further 6 per cent working in PR.

The assumption here is that someone who studied Journalism at university will want to become a journalist when they leave – which is an assumption which may not be true. It may not be the case that a decision taken at the age of 18 to study Journalism will result in a decision three years later to become a journalist. A wider measure, perhaps, is the extent to which those who studied Journalism are working in ‘graduate level’ jobs, loosely defined as being those in the higher level occupations (coded 1-3 in the SOC). On this measure, it was nearly three quarters (73 per cent).

Here though, we should note a clear distinction between the proportion working as journalists from postgraduate and undergraduate courses. The data shows that 45 per cent of employed leavers from postgraduate Journalism courses were working as journalists (which increases to 50 per cent if the ‘don’t know’ data is removed) compared to 14 per cent of employed leavers from undergraduate courses (18 per cent when the ‘don’t knows’ are removed). Evidently (and perhaps not surprisingly), postgraduate Journalism courses are more likely to lead to employment as a journalist than undergraduate journalism courses.

There could be an argument made that if only a quarter of those who studied Journalism at university are working as a journalist, this indicates an element of over-supply of journalism courses. We are not convinced by this: if this was the case, it would be expected that nearly all people who having left HE who are working as a journalist would have studied Journalism. This is not the case: research for the NCTJ on the HESA database suggests that of the individuals who left Higher Education in 2012/13 and were working as a journalist, two thirds (65 per cent) did not study journalism. Just over a third (35 per cent) had studied Journalism. Significant proportions of these ‘new entrant’ journalists have studied subject areas outside the ‘media’ areas: nearly a fifth (18 per cent) studied Languages (which includes English studies, Classical Studies and American Studies, as well as Foreign Language Studies), a tenth (10 per cent) studied Creative Arts and Design (which includes Imaginative Writing, Fine Art, Design Studies, etc) and 7 per cent Historical and Philosophical Studies (including History, Archaeology, Philosophy and Theology).

Discussion and conclusion

This chapter set out to investigate two questions: what kind of people study journalism at university and why do they do it? Data from HESA suggests that:

• Journalism students look very much like other students:

– in terms of personal characteristics, females are in a majority (57 per cent of Journalism students), the majority (82 per cent) of them are from white ethnic groups and the majority do not have a known disability. These traits are much in line with the general student body. Where Journalism students do vary slightly is in their age: 73 per cent of Journalism students were 20 and under, 22 per cent aged 21-24, with small proportions in older age groups. This is a different pattern to those studying all other subjects – where a much lower 52 per cent are aged 20 and under and higher proportions are at older age levels;
– in terms of socio-economic background, Journalism students are less, not more, likely to have been through private education than their colleagues at university and are from similar socio-economic backgrounds as the wider student body.

• Journalism students will typically go to university for the same reasons as other students – to get a job, a graduate level job and a job that they have some affinity with. In this, they are successful and journalism ‘works for them’:

– 82 per cent of those who have studied Journalism at a HE institution are in work six months after;
– just over a quarter (26 per cent) are working as a journalist, with a further 6 per cent working in PR; 73 per cent are working in a ‘graduate level’ job.

This data shows that, despite much concern about over-supply of journalism courses and the disruption to ‘traditional’ patterns of journalism employment caused by the introductions of digital technologies, Journalism students are very employable. Not all work as journalists (though if you study a postgraduate Journalism degree the chance is higher), but this reflects the spread of journalists across different sectors of the economy. It should be no surprise that in a workplace where the ability to communicate is valued, those who have been trained to tell stories find themselves in demand.

This data also sheds some light on the concerns about diversity, particularly the impact on social class on the likelihood of becoming a journalist. At this level of analysis, there is no indication recruiters to Journalism courses are disproportionately selecting those from higher socio-economic groups or with a private school background. To the extent this is an issue within journalism, the discrimination appears to be taking place further down the pipeline, when individuals are selected for their first jobs or in the early part of their careers.

* Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait Abramis Academic Publishing Bury St Edmunds £19.95. January 2017. Available at special pre-publication price of £15 to HoldtheFrontPage readers from Richard@abramis.co.uk

2 comments

You can follow all replies to this entry through the comments feed.
  • December 16, 2016 at 4:22 pm
    Permalink

    Well, that’s an impressive set of statistics. Never, in the field of investigative journalism, has so much been written, and so little said. Who studies journalism? Aspiring journalists generally.
    What percentage stay the course and end up in jobs after it is a more interesting question? Half answered I s’pose with ” Journalism students are very employable. Not all work as journalists”

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(3)
  • December 20, 2016 at 9:07 am
    Permalink

    And seldom, Toggy, with quite such poor punctuation and sentence construction. I stopped reading after the eighth typo.
    One fat volume that won’t be on my Christmas list, alas.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(0)