Sports journalism – a matter of degree?

By Steven Downes
Jeff Randall, the former sports editor of the Sunday Times and BBC business editor, now an “editor-at-large” at the Daily Telegraph, had this eye-catching intro in the newspaper:

If you believe that the United Kingdom is squandering taxpayers’ money on an obscene scale by overfunding useless courses at tinpot universities. If you’re angered by the growing number of young people who are deep in debt, having spent three years chasing spurious qualifications, which count for little in the jobs market.

If you’re sickened by the fact that Labour has pumped many extra billions into education, yet a majority of students still fail to pass both GCSE Maths and English at C-grade or better.

If you are all of the above and suffer from a heart condition, then stop right here. The rest of this column carries an author’s health warning.

In fact, there might be a cause for concern close to home for sports journalists. In the post-A level scramble for university places that happens at this time of year, there were two factoids that flashed across my radar in the past week that certainly made me worried.

First, 96.6 per cent of A level pupils now manage to get at least an E grade. Doesn’t that basically mean that anyone who spells their name correctly on the exam sheet gets an A level? And doesn’t that therefore mean the door is being deliberately left wide open for all 18-year-olds to go to uni?

I suppose it is one way of keeping an entire generation out of the job market for three years at a time.

The second worrying discovery made this week is that there are now seven degree-level courses available at universities in Britain for the subject of “sports journalism”.

These courses are offered through the clearing system (there may well be others that are already fully subscribed) at places such as Brighton University, somewhere called “Southampton Solent University”, and another place called “the University of the Arts, London”. Further investigation shows that the course is offered through the “London College of Communications”, or what most people still regard as the London College of Printing at the Elephant & Castle.

Perhaps even more of a surprise is that these are mostly three-year courses (at East London University, you can take four years studying sports journalism). According to the University of Central Lancashire’s prospectus, that is three years of doing as much as 12 hours each week of lectures and seminars in term time (beware: for there are 593 general journalism courses available to start in the autumn of 2006 through the clearing system, 155 of them within the Greater London area alone).

Now, am I alone in wondering if this is an entirely appropriate way for 18-to-21-year-olds to spend three years of their young lives? Is it an appropriate subject for academic study at all?

In his piece, Randall fulminates in typical “Angry of Tunbridge Wells” style:

The University of Brighton offers a course in viticulture and oenology (wine studies to you and me). No fewer than six universities still have empty places in Women’s Studies. And Truro College, part of Plymouth University, seeks applicants for a BA in Contemporary World Jazz.

Or wine, women and song, as Randall notes with a touch which, it might be suggested, cannot be taught, not even at degree level.

Randall reasons:

No wonder that all three of Britain’s leading business groups – the British Chambers of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors – are in despair over the output of our schools and universities.

Only this week, the CBI revealed that one in three employers is having to send staff for remedial training to teach them basic literacy and numeracy. Far too many school-leavers simply cannot read or write.

Labour’s obsession with “inclusivity”… as far as education goes means shoehorning even the village idiot into a university.

A touch harsh, perhaps, Jeff, but we get the point.

What we would like to do is open a debate here: is sports journalism a worthy subject for a university degree course?

We’d be fascinated to find out what anyone might learn during those 12 student hours each week which cannot be fathomed during the first year’s work by any capable trainee on a local newspaper or local radio station (earning a salary, remember, rather than building up a debt) who takes in rather briefer, specialist training courses while learning the business on the job.

Let us know your views by placing your comments in the box below

And to become a member of the SJA, click here.

To read the whole of Jeff Randall’s column, click here.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Sports Journalists’ Association

It was first posted on Aug 23, 2006

3 thoughts on “Sports journalism – a matter of degree?

  1. You’ve said you don’t think sports journalism is a worthy subject for university about 3 times, yet you’ve failed to explain your reasons why? On that basis alone, it reduces the overall strength of your argument and, ultimately, it means your whole argument becomes a baseless opinion with nothing to support it?

    I have come to the opinion that either 1) you were bullied by a kid at school who became a sports journalist or 2) the neighbours with the scary dog and the naughty kid are away on holiday, so you have nothing else to moan about for a few days.

    Also, if you escaped your own ignorance and cared to move north of London (there is actually human life beyond the M25 circular), you will find that Leeds Trinity, Huddersfield, Staffordshire & Preston universities also offer a sports journalism course.

    As the saying goes, don’t mock it until you’ve tried it. Something that you clearly haven’t!

    1. The view broadly shared by other senior SJA members, who have many years of experience in the profession, and as trainers and lecturers, is that a good, conventional degree, followed by a short, practical course in general journalism, is a far better use of a prospective sports journalist’s formative years than a three- or – heaven forbid! – four-year degree course in sports journalism.

      As a student accumulating debts, remember it is the student who is ultimately paying for fiddling their thumbs through just 12 hours a week over the duration of the course.

      This article was published on this website nearly five years ago, Andrew, and drew attention to a Telegraph piece by Jeff Randall, a widely respected journalists who has worked variously as business editor and sports editor at the BBC and Sunday Times. It is similar to the views expressed by Hugh McIlvanney, who never went to university, and Martin Samuel, three times the SJA’s Sports Journalist of the Year. Or are you suggesting that they were all bullied at school?

      Frankly, your failed attempt at humour merged with personal abuse does you no favours. particularly so since you fail to get your facts right, something every self-respecting, practically trained sports journalist normally places very high on their priority list.

      Or didn’t you bother to read the bit about Preston’s sports journalism course? Or didn’t you notice the question marks at the end of the sentences where we queried the validity of such courses? If your comment here is an example of your rigorous three-year Sports Journo degree training, well…

  2. I think that this article (and by implication Jeff Randall) has it spot on. I have just started my final year of a 3 year Chemistry course at Sheffield, whilst doing sports writing for the student newspaper. There are others who write for the newspaper who are in my situation, as well as those who are on Sheffield’s fairly well respected Journalism courses, and there is no difference in the quality of articles between the two groups.

    The fact is that many of the skills required to be a journalist (being able to write, working to deadlines etc) come as part of any degree course worthy of the name. A great part of Sports Journalism in particular is obviously the knowledge of the sport(s) that you are covering, knowledge which should be obtained through one’s enjoyment of said sport.

    There is nothing to be gained from a 3 year Journalism course that couldn’t be picked up from work experience or in a few weeks “on the job”.

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