NOTE: See updates at the end
For many years the Association for Journalism Education (AJE) has debated whether its institutions should boycott the NCTJ. And for many years the NCTJ has all but ignored it. At this year’s AJE AGM the issue cropped up once again.
The complaints are copious, and I won’t list them all here, but revolve around some core issues:
- an increasing lack of relevance of the NCTJ training to the modern news industry;
- lack of academic rigour;
- and a lack of representation on the NCTJ board of the higher education sector, the NCTJ’s biggest customer.
Earlier this year AJE Chairman Chris Frost listed these complaints in a lengthy letter to the NCTJ. The reply disconcertingly resembled the automatically generated missives you get when you complain to a pub chain, largely ignoring the issues Chris raised.
The problem for journalism departments in the AJE is that NCTJ accreditation is not about education, but marketing. And as the market for journalism courses expands, the NCTJ logo becomes an important way to quickly establish new courses and differentiate older courses from the increasing competition. Courses become afraid to break away for fear of the impact on applications, and the result is that the NCTJ exercises power without responsibility.
The NCTJ is a private and commercial organisation. Its latest move – to establish a ‘gold standard’ accreditation for courses with a 60% pass rate – raised hackles both for its stench of league tables, and for the possibility that it will become yet another way of raising money, like the ‘awards ceremonies’ which require you to shell out for your gold statuette.
Colleagues on recently NCTJ accredited courses tell me that their contacts with the NCTJ revolve entirely around gathering money. Many have had to run the NCTJ courses in parallel with a full degree course, as they are unable to justify how learning shorthand is equivalent to first year degree study. The journalism degree I teach on, at UCE, decided not to accredit many years ago in large part because of this problem. We arrange shorthand courses for journalism students separately rather than incorporating it formally, and not having to accredit means we were flexible enough to offer subjects (including the critical analysis integral to any degree level study) that the NCTJ, with its particularly local, print ideas of journalism training, balks at. But we’re lucky: we’ve been established long enough to build a reputation and healthy application numbers.
The need for an NCTJ ‘badge’ seems to be something of a self-perpetuating myth: regional press editors continue to say that they require it, despite evidence that half of the new journalists they take on don’t have NCTJ training. Students and parents turn up at open days asking about it, thinking the NCTJ is a pass into journalism. Who tells them this? Careers advisers?
Magazines, the national press, broadcasting and online news operations generally couldn’t give a stuff about NCTJ. In conversation, editors on local newspapers are increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of NCTJ-trained applicants, while at the same time becoming more interested in applicants with video and online skills.
Meanwhile, the lack of career structure in local papers means we need to be training our students for the second, fifth and tenth years of their careers, when (unless things change) they have left their local reporting days behind and where flexibility, creativity, entrepreneurial ability and intellectual rigour – not just shorthand or local government – will have proved central to career progression.
If the NCTJ continue to refuse to listen to – or represent – their customers, if they continue developing at a pace that makes glaciers look nimble, and if they continue to put income before education, they may find universities’ patience runs out very soon indeed.
UPDATE (Sep 21 07): The Press Gazette editor’s blog contains some interesting comments about the NCTJ:
“Having recently finished an NCTJ course in newspaper journalism, I wasn’t overly-impressed. Whilst the course was fast-track, it mostly consisted of going over past exams papers – something which I could have done in my own time and saved myself the £1000+ fee. Shorthand was the only real skill that was passed on. Thirteen people failed the news writing exam despite good portfolio grades (surely some kind of scandal?) Resits cost £30 a piece and the NCTJ refuse to let you see where you lost marks unless you furnish them with further cash for the privilege. There needs to be a thorough investigation into whether the NCTJ is offering value for money to journalism students.”
UPDATE (Sep 2010): Strathclyde’s withdrawal from NCTJ accreditation is covered well here and in the comments, where the university’s own Brian McNair says:
“The problem with research-led universities such as Strathclyde is that they cannot incorporate the time-intensive, highly vocational, externally-written and examined NCTJ curriculum within their undergrad programmes, which is why so many have given up the attempt, or never bothered in the first place.
“And we did try at Strathclyde, believe me. I myself taught Public Affairs in my first year at the university, and managed to record a 100% pass rate for my students. This was not deemed good enough by the NCTJ when they came to ‘inspect’ us, because it had been done in less than their prescribed number of contact hours. Had they been more flexible in their approach to our teaching methods, maybe we would still be in the scheme.”