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February 27, 2024

Centre for Journalism being sacrificed to fill University of Kent funding gap

Inside the financial pressures endangering the University of Kent's Centre for Journalism, and broader issues facing training and diversity.

By Ian Reeves

A man with a digital tape measure appears in one of our teaching newsrooms during a reporting workshop for undergraduates at the start of the September term.

“Don’t mind me,” he says cheerfully, bouncing his laser off the walls and making notes. But the room is full of well-trained journalism students. They fire him a few questions. Who are you? And what are you doing here?

What he’s doing, it turns out to our surprise, is measuring up because the building that houses the University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism (CfJ) is to be sold off. He’s also signalling the start of an unfolding news story that is about to end badly for my hugely talented team of practitioner-journalism educators – and which also indicates a far-reaching problem that will have consequences for the diversity of our industry.

The sale of the building is required to help fill a massive hole in the University of Kent’s finances. Without a building to call home, and no capital available to move its TV and radio studios and teaching newsrooms elsewhere, the journalism department is earmarked for closure.

That’s despite it being a successful, thriving department. Our BA and MA courses – accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists – have set hundreds of brilliant young people on the path to outstanding careers in newspapers, magazines, radio, television and digital journalism, as well as associated media industries. We have recently expanded our offer to include groundbreaking courses such as the Year in Journalism (also NCTJ accredited) and the Year in TV & Online Broadcasting. And since 2022 we have delivered the most prestigious journalism training programme in the country for the BBC – the postgraduate Level 7 Apprenticeship that replaced its in-house graduate training scheme, a contract which runs until 2028. Our teaching income has grown 22% in the past 3 years. We are profitable.

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Writing real stuff for real people

And we have pioneered what I think could be a blueprint for practice-based journalism training, along the lines of what former newspaper editor Mike Gilson was suggesting on these pages last September when he wrote: “I’d like to see some of the universities with excellent journalism centres be given government help to establish news outlets in their patches, using students and young journalists. Think how galvanised those students would be to be writing real stuff for real people rather than waiting to graduate and heading straight for the communications “industry”.

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Mike was certainly onto something there; it’s something we have been doing since 2017. Kent’s journalism department works in partnership with KMTV, an independent Ofcom-licensed television channel that broadcasts from a studio on the campus to hundreds of thousands of homes across the county on Freeview Channel 7 and on Virgin, as part of the Local TV network. As an independent commercial TV operation formed as a partnership between the university and the KM Group (now part of Iliffe Media), KMTV has been a huge success too. It has grown from scratch in 2017 (initially seed-funded with a modest slice of the BBC licence fee) to a team of 18. It produces award-winning news programming as part of the public service requirement of its licence, and has produced groundbreaking documentary series for young audiences – funded in part by the BFI – which are now reaching national audiences having just been picked up by ITVx.

Its news programming is built around a live news magazine programme every evening, and also includes weekly shows on politics, business, sport, the environment, music and cinema and much more – each of them providing our journalism students with invaluable opportunities to pitch stories, produce segments, and work in the gallery alongside professionals throughout their courses. As a production line for talent, it has been exceptional. Centre for Journalism/KMTV alumni are working in newsrooms across the globe – Sky, the BBC, ITV, C4 and C5, CNN, NBC – to name just a few.

Fighting against the odds for survival

And yet, despite all of these successes and the many awards racked up by our students and alumni (including British Journalism Awards, RTS Awards, an Amnesty International Media Award, Apprentice of the Year awards, countless Kent Press & Media Awards, and the NCTJ’s ‘student project of the year’ category for 5 years running) here we are fighting against the odds to keep the Centre for Journalism open.

Kent is not the only university that’s in big trouble – although questionable management decisions over a period of recent years have left it worse off than most – and it’s not the only one that is eyeing up ‘niche’ subjects such as journalism when deciding where the axe should fall. South Wales University announced the decision to drop its undergraduate journalism programme last month, despite pleas from industry leaders in that region that there was a dearth of well-trained journalists for them to hire.

You can read more detail about the systemic problems with university funding and the “triangle of sadness” elsewhere – but of particular note for smaller subjects such as journalism has been the effect of the removal of the ‘numbers cap’ by the coalition government when George Osborne was chancellor. This was a mechanism by which total student numbers for each institution in the UK were kept broadly stable. Its removal has led over time to a dramatic shift in which the older universities – the so-called Russell Group – have successfully leveraged their heritage to expand rapidly, taking larger and larger cohorts of students on many of their courses. Their growth has come largely at the expense of newer universities including those like Kent (established in the 1960s) and some of the post-1992 universities, whose student numbers have dropped, in some cases precipitously, during the same period.

For Journalism, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) bears this out. In 2022 (the most recent data available) Russell Group universities boasted a 42% increase in undergrad journalism students over the previous five years, compared to a 20% aggregate decline for all other universities.

Fair enough, some might say. Let the market decide. I’ve no doubt that the journalism education provided by those institutions is very good (although I wish more of them would accredit themselves with the NCTJ), just as it is by commercial postgrad training providers like News Associates, PA Training and others.

The problem with that is the people that it leaves behind. Take our own centre, which is on a small campus in Medway, right next to Chatham Docks. It’s what’s known as a ‘widening participation’ campus, designed to attract and encourage students who would not otherwise have considered a university education. Many of our undergrads are from lower income backgrounds, live locally, or commute in from their family homes in north Kent and South London. A lot of them are the first of their families to get a university place.

Diversity problem

These are the students who would continue to have diversified your future newsrooms, but for whom travelling to study in Sheffield, Cardiff or even central London would not realistically be an option. Neither would they be able to think about paying up front for a commercial postgrad course after racking up 3 years of other student debt.

A future where journalism training gravitates only toward the more elite universities is not going to help the already-acute diversity problem that the NCTJ’s report last year so starkly illuminated.

An 18-year-old from Kent with an aspiration for a successful career in journalism will no longer have an option to study the subject in their own county (Canterbury Christchurch University closed its journalism programmes last year).

I have no doubt that the management teams at other institutions will be looking closely at the detail of that HESA data – which predicts an overall decline of 16% in undergraduate students wanting to study journalism between now and 2028.

How many will reach the conclusion to invest in the expertise and equipment needed to train the digitally savvy, technically skilled, ethically focused, socially and ethnically diverse young journalists that the industry needs to transform its fortunes?

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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