Ensuring the viability of media and communication studies is an investment in the future

Degrees in media, screen, journalism, and communication studies often face public derision. Yet as Ruairí Cullen explains, these subjects show remarkable resilience and rising appeal, despite ongoing challenges

Ruairí Cullen is the Senior Observatory Lead in the Higher Education & Research policy team at the British Academy

Despite their intimate – and often overlooked – connection and contribution to technological, cultural and social advancements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, degrees in media, screen, journalism, and communication studies often find themselves the subjects of derision in public discourse. SHAPE (social sciences, humanities, and the arts for people and the economy) disciplines often face public ridicule – fueled by little more than prejudice.

Continuing the work of the British Academy’s SHAPE Observatory to monitor and assess the health of our disciplines, we recently turned our attention to the state of media, screen, journalism, and communication studies provision in UK higher education. This work revealed a decade-long trend of stable popularity and rising international appeal for these subjects which span the breadth of SHAPE from film production and cultural studies to advertising and journalism.

Yet beneath this surface success lies a complex landscape marked by a growing reliance on international students and significant regional disparities in higher education. These dynamics not only shape the academic future of these subjects, they also have profound implications for the already embattled creative industries, which are vital to the UK’s economic and cultural vitality.

Popularity belies the critics

Despite the cultural debates and scepticism, media, screen, journalism, and communication studies have shown remarkable resilience and growth over the past decade. Between 2012 and 2021, these subjects saw a six per cent increase in undergraduate enrollments. This sustained interest highlights the value placed on these disciplines by young people.

But it is at the postgraduate level where the story is one of resounding popularity. Between 2012 and 2021, the number of students pursuing taught postgraduate degrees in these subjects skyrocketed by 72 per cent. This surge underscores the recognition of these fields as pathways to enhanced career opportunities. Meanwhile, postgraduate research student numbers also saw significant growth, increasing by 31 per cent over the same period. These trends collectively paint a picture of a robust set of subjects which boast both domestic and international appeal.

But by delving into the postgraduate numbers, we uncover the first of two key challenges for these subjects. While internationally domiciled students make up 17 per cent of undergraduates, at the postgraduate taught level in 2021–22 they comprised 54 per cent of the cohort. Misguided polemics against international student numbers serve as an important reminder of the potential snowball effects of international student curbs on both providers and the broader industries that rely on these graduates.

London calling

While an increasing proportion of postgraduates at Russell Group higher education institutions is the norm across the SHAPE disciplines, the appeal of London in media, screen, journalism, and communication studies is markedly higher than the SHAPE aggregate figure, with 45 per cent of postgraduate taught students attending London and South East institutions, in comparison to 33 per cent across all SHAPE subjects.

A consequence of this unequal growth may be financial and recruitment challenges for institutions outside of London and outside of the Russell Group if current trends, particularly at postgraduate levels, continue. A second, perhaps more difficult to quantify, consequence will be the loss of one of these subjects’ great strengths: institutional and disciplinary diversity.

Against the grain

Media, screen, journalism, and communication studies underpin the UK’s world-leading creative industries, which, as we know, punch far above their weight in the UK economy: the creative sectors have grown at 1.5 times the rate of the UK economy over the past decade and contribute £108 billion annually to the economy.

Ensuring the continued viability and appeal of media, screen, journalism, and communication studies is not just an academic concern but an investment in a healthy and functioning society ready to face the challenges of the twenty-first century defined by increasing digitalisation globally and emergent technologies.

All the while, these disciplines face challenges that need addressing. Safeguarding international talent and addressing regional disparities are critical issues that require strategic attention. By fostering a more balanced and inclusive growth across these disciplines, we can ensure their continued contribution to the UK’s cultural and economic landscape.

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