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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK
Homer good, Homer Simpson bad?
Media studies as an academic subject is under fire once again as universities reopen. This year, students opting for the course are accused of returning us to the dark ages.

Due to a lack of scientists, we risk slipping back into the technological "dark ages" - for media studies graduates, that's not a reference to the days before colour TV, but a rather grim period of European history 1,000 years ago. No, they didn't even have black and white telly.

This rather stark warning was issued by Sir Peter Williams, president of the British Association. The culprits in this hideous scientific regression? Media studies students, of course - who should be taking physics, chemistry and biology instead.

Young people in Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the US are opting to ponder soap opera plotlines, rather than research cures for HIV and Sars, Sir Peter said at the association's annual festival this week.

Sir Peter warns that that we cannot take continued scientific progress for granted. There are many challenges ahead of us - of which the rise of superbugs is just one. If more people do not receive a grounding in the sciences, he says, we will lack both the expertise and the political will to address these problems.

Phd in GMTV?

But is this really all the fault of students tackling essay questions about breakfast TV presenters?

Media studies has been a favourite target for critics of standards in the UK's colleges and universities.

The open salvos were fired by the former chief inspector of schools in England, Chris Woodhead - when in 1999 he called on students to learn a trade rather than opt for weak academic courses. He later cited media studies as "the obvious example" of a "vacuous" course.

Back to the dark ages?
The debate still rages. When the A-level results came out this summer, John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the record-breaking grades were down to students being encouraged to take "soft" subjects.

Among the softest in his estimation was, of course, media studies.

The figures, however, are confusing - and not just for media studies students. Some 38.9% of those who took a maths A-level this year emerged with an A grade, while only 12.4% of media studies students achieved the grade.

Ruth Lea, of the Institute of Directors, is one of those keen to "put a very, very big health warning" on media studies as a university course.

'Fuddy-duddy'

"People just say we're being fuddy-duddy, but employers do understand what's going on with soft degrees."

Ms Lea says students signing up for media studies should realise that they risk taking on all the debts that modern university life entails, only to leave without a qualification attractive to employers.

However, the latest survey by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) suggests that media studies students rank alongside civil engineering, accountancy and business studies graduates in the employability stakes.

Indeed, for the first time those holding media studies degrees were more successful at securing professional employment than IT graduates.

Ms Lea - a former high-ranking economist and a consultant for Independent Television News (ITN) - doubts these findings.

'These goggles are killing me. I wish I'd taken media studies.'
"They don't get graduate jobs, jobs related to their degrees. At ITN, I didn't meet any media studies graduates, people had done English and politics."

But why is it so much less impressive to study Homer Simpson than Homer's Iliad?

"It's not the subject itself, it is how it is taught. If an employers sees that you have studied the classics at Oxford, they'll know you have been put through the mill. They won't think that if you have done media studies at one of the former polytechnics."

Raymond Boyle, head of the media studies department at the University of Stirling (one of the UK's oldest such faculties), resents the perennial sniping at his subject.

"I often wonder how the people who have a pop at media studies would do if they sat an exam in the subject?"

'Hybrid'

Mr Boyle says that media studies is a "hybrid" course, which crosses a wealth of established disciplines, such as politics, history and law.

Indeed, given the importance of the media in modern life, he says it would be remiss of universities not to offer a course studying it.

"If you landed from Mars and saw 16 million people settling down three times a day to watch the TV news, you'd think it was interesting and important. You just have to look at the Hutton inquiry to see how influential the media is in our lives."

Our society is saturated by media. It's completely legitimate to study the media's importance and influence
Raymond Boyle, media studies lecturer
Mr Boyle says that his students graduate with a whole range of "transferable skills" - such as the ability to write, think analytically and form arguments (just the sorts of virtues high-brow arts degrees such as the classics are praised for instilling).

So how long will media studies students have to suffer snide comments about their qualifications?

"Back in the 1980s, people were attacking sociology as being an unworthy discipline. Once media studies builds a history and more graduates work their way into management, perceptions will shift," says Mr Boyle.

Perhaps media studies can help solve the problem of our disappearing scientists. "Question 1: How far have characters such as Doc Brown in Back to the Future and Beaker on The Muppets and the Tefal Heads shaped societal perceptions of science?"


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