If some staff felt that the appointment of Sir Michael Parkinson as Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University (2008-2014) was an unexpected choice, they may feel vindicated now. Of course in my day you had royalty, and you didn’t have to fear a ‘Ratner moment’ from them. They wouldn’t drop an ill-advised comment which would bring the university into disrepute. And anyway, the ennobled former Tory minister who usually headed the university management would have kept the chancellor well away from any actual students. When deference to the titled aristocracy collapsed, there emerged rather a vacuum in universities when it came to filling the largely ceremonial role of chancellor. A number of universities saw the opportunity to indulge their students’ regard for celebrity culture by appointing chancellors who were well enough connected to be able to enliven their graduation ceremonies with a few stars from the world of film, television and sport.
At the time, Parkinson fitted this ideal, and seemed to be an ally, saying, as he stepped down in July 2014, “I was involved a lot with the media courses. When I was doing shows in London, a group of them would come down and spend time with me and watch how it all worked. It was always very refreshing. I’m 79 now and I didn’t go to university. Being with young people has opened my eyes. You forget how ambitious they are and you see yourself in them”
During Parkinson’s tenure these journalism courses, and their students, won several national awards and graduated hundreds of employable students. Indeed, his endorsement still garlands the recruitment website for the NTU broadcast journalism degree: “It is important that those who are choosing to go into the industry are as well prepared and highly skilled as they can be, not only to compete for jobs but also to ensure that the media grows and remains fresh with new ideas brought in by graduates. The Centre for Broadcasting & Journalism at Nottingham Trent University is focused on giving students the best possible start by ensuring that our graduates have all the skills necessary to be at the forefront when it comes to employability.”
You feel for the students as they must now wonder what contempt was suppressed behind the Chancellor’s cap doffing at their degree ceremonies, because in the Daily Mail on 25th November 2016, under the perennial slur ‘Mickey Mouse media degrees are a waste of time’, Parkinson is quoted in an interview ‘They have them at Nottingham Trent [and] it seems to me that a lot of young people do it as they see it as a way of getting onto shows like I’m A Celebrity. They want to be famous. They are convinced by things like I’m A Celebrity and that is their idea of fame – that instant fame that makes you a hero on the internet”.
The Daily Mail reminds us that the term ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’ was coined by the former Labour Education Minister, Margaret Hodge who felt that some courses failed to serve students in both rigour and employability. Neither of these myths is true. Media Studies is second only to medicine in employability, though cynics would add that media graduates fall at the bottom end of the salary scale. But then, not all students are motivated by the promise of a high salary, which is just as well, because few graduates of any discipline will receive one. And as for celebrity aspirations, I have to say, I have encountered some strange rationales for going to university (including my own), but being on I’m a Celebrity isn’t one of them. Sure, students are willing to discuss shows such as these, but are also anxious to encounter ways of making sense of their hold over the viewing populace.
There is another type of media studies degree, though, that vice-chancellors are not so ready to defend, and have been rather fond of closing down. These are degrees which might once have formed a strand in an English degree, but in the 1980s fielded independent degrees housed in departments of cultural studies. These became a home for literary scholars, historians, modern linguists, sociologists, philosophers, ethnographers, social psychologists, and social geographers. To start with it was a peculiarly British development, but quickly attracted a large number of influential scholars from across the globe. Cultural studies was the crucible of critical thought about structures of power, class, gender and race throughout those decades. Building on the work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, the discipline gave birth to a large number of what Americans would call public intellectuals: Stuart Hall, Richard Johnson, Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie, Paul Gilroy, Celia Lury, Ien Ang, Meahgan Morris, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others.
There has been enormously significant cultural ‘turn’ in the world of humanities scholarship. The discipline offers students a methodology of decoding texts, including visual texts, and the signs, beliefs, myths, narratives, structures and institutions which coalesce into ‘culture’. It has spawned postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, postmodernism, gender and queer theory – all no doubt disapproved of by the Daily Mail, but nevertheless productive paradigms of enquiry. And, yes, all of these have huge ‘impact’. The influence of cultural studies inside and outside the academy is now equalled only by the assaults on its claims to legitimacy.
The University of Birmingham was home to perhaps the most famous and influential research centre, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded by Hoggart in 1964 which was internationally regarded. This deserved reputation did not survive the distortions of the Research Assessment Exercise, and the management closed the Centre in 2002. Supporters felt that it was the centre’s own propensity to critique the structures of power operating throughout the institution within which they sat that was their undoing. Indeed, as a critical scholar I know only too well the penalty of following their lead.
But what is a university without scholars who feel free to be critical of political traditions, or offer new forms of literacy and make way for new paradigms of enquiry? Why is it considered a good thing to produce graduates who can assess the influence of Oliver Cromwell, but not Jamie Oliver? The media produces texts and shapes beliefs, just as the literary canon does, and these require our critical attention. How do we decode their meanings, identify their purpose and their audience? Without these skills, how do we hold the media to account? I’m not suggesting that Media Studies graduates will guarantee the survival of our liberal democracy. Far from it. But protecting that body of knowledge and supporting the current work of scholars will ensure that the media, and perhaps even university chancellors, are held to greater scrutiny. And if we do sacrifice the critical content of media and cultural studies degrees – if we render them mere training courses for the ‘creative industries’, then behold the culture which finds itself unable to distinguish evidence from post-truth politics. We seem to be already there.
I waited a couple of days before writing this. I thought I would give the management of Nottingham Trent University chance to make a ‘robust’ response in defence of its media and journalism degrees. To my knowledge, no such statement has appeared, and I wished to defend my colleagues and their students who do excellent work. NTU management are very sensitive about reputational damage, so I know they will appreciate me making the effort.