I still remember the first time I set foot in the newsroom of The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh, all piles of paper and swearing. It was 1997 and no one was remotely interested in the fact that I was studying at one of the city’s several universities.
Getting and holding a university degree was interesting, and probably common among the younger reporters. But among the senior men – and they were all men – who got the paper out every night, my MA (Hons) was irrelevant. Some of them might have gone to university, but most hadn’t: the news editor had spent his formative years as a Royal Marine Commando, fighting in the Falklands.
Fast forward to 2017. I’m walking out of The Telegraph newsroom for the last time, colleagues banging their desks in the old-fashioned newspaper send-off. Perhaps a handful of those colleagues don’t have a university degree, but they are curiosities, creatures from an earlier era. We are all graduates now.
So what? Who cares about journalists’ CVs, other than other journalists? Generally, journalism-about-journalism is navel-gazing and irrelevant. But I think that shift in the backgrounds of journalists matters far beyond the media industry. Because journalists are human and human beings assume they’re the normal ones, that their experience is the default. And we’re generally pretty bad at remembering that not everyone is like us or does what we do.
Which is why a generation of graduate journalists – my generation – has done such a bad job of not just reporting on a huge swathe of educational and economic life in the UK, but also why we’ve been so surprised by so much of the politics of recent years.
Let’s start with some figures. By one academic estimate, in 1968, barely 10 per cent of British journalists were graduates – a little higher than the 6 per cent of school leavers who went to higher education, but not much.
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In 2013, the National Council for the Training of Journalists found that 82 per cent of journalists had a degree. In the same year, 39 per cent of school-leavers went to university.
At senior levels, graduates are even more dominant. In 1986, the Sutton Trust found that 20 per cent of a sample of 100 senior journalists had not attended university. By 2015, that had fallen to just 12 per cent. Editors, who decide what gets covered and what does not, are now overwhelmingly people who went to university.
This, I think, helps explain why so much of the UK media is so skewed in its coverage of education. If you read a national newspaper, even a tabloid, or consume BBC “content”, you might get the impression that the only thing children do between 16 and 18 is A-levels, and the only thing they do after that is go to university for a degree.
You certainly wouldn’t learn that such choices are still, just about, taken by the minority. While we’ve hit the fabled 50 per cent target for school-leavers going to HE, not all of them go after A-levels: some enter university having done BTECs or other vocational qualifications.
And many of them don’t go to “uni” but continue to study, in something called “Further Education”, the bit of the education system that barely gets mentioned in many media outlets. Even though it educates more people than HE (the numbers are roughly 2 million vs 1.2 million), FE gets a fraction of the coverage that papers and broadcasters give HE.
In 2020, national and major regional papers mentioned universities 44,769 times. FE got 24,312 mentions, and those were heavily skewed towards regional papers.
Over the last decade, the Hartlepool Mail (693 mentions) wrote about FE more often than the Daily Telegraph (597). The Gloucestershire Echo (428) wrote about FE more often than the Financial Times (388). That last figure is all the more striking given the importance of skills and training to the businesses that are a staple of FT coverage.
Skills and training are what FE is all about. While you can get a degree via an FE college, and while some people start off in FE before moving to HE, FE is about imparting the skills, techniques and know-how needed to do actual jobs in the actual world. How many of us with university degrees can honestly say we use what we learned while studying for them in our jobs today? HE is often about credentialism; FE rarely is.
It’s uncontroversial to say we need more of the stuff that FE gives. The UK’s poor productivity performance isn’t all about the poor skills of the workforce, but there’s no way to improve that performance without improving those skills.
That’s the national picture. Below the level of national statistics, FE matters for people and places too, and in a way that often escapes a national media based in London, with reporters who begin their career in the capital and rarely leave it. (The decline of regional papers is another of those important media stories that matters far beyond journalism.)
Take Hartlepool, where the national media will soon be reading the runes of a by-election. How many of those reports will note that Hartlepool doesn’t have a university. In that, it’s joined by other medium-sized towns (Hartlepool council covers 290,000 people) such as Wigan, Wakefield, Birkenhead and Blackpool. But Hartlepool has two major FE colleges, which matter much more to such places and their people than the HE sector that gets far more media coverage.
Some of those towns I mentioned above fall into the Red Wall of red-to-blue switch seats that are the focus of much politics today. Most are home to considerable numbers of Leave voters in the 2016 referendum. They’re also places that Westminster narratives depict as “left behind”, in need of “levelling up”.
They, and their FE colleges, are sometimes literally the places that we (I’m from Northumberland, north of the Red Wall) left behind when we went to university and then on to our shiny jobs in the media. These places are essentially foreign to metropolitan-based graduate journalists.
And so the political outcomes they contribute to come as a surprise. The 2016 referendum result shouldn’t have surprised the media, or politicians, as much as it did. But the same things that lead to media neglect of FE in preference for university coverage help explain that surprise. Education is the common feature: not having a university degree was arguably the best predictor of whether someone would vote Leave. (Non-graduates backed Brexit by more than 3:1). And that’s not just about age, either: 20-something non-graduates were much more likely to vote Leave than their degree-holding peers.
Is there even a causal relationship here? Did some Leave voters opt for Brexit to reject a political system that is dominated by (and reported on) people who don’t share or value their educational experience? That would be understandable, because if you don’t have a degree and your kids didn’t, don’t or won’t go to university, who is there at Westminster who understands you and people like you?
There are some politicians, and some journalists, who do get it, who do know something about the “other 50 per cent” who do things like go to FE colleges. But they are a small and exotic minority, minor voices in a choir that largely sings about the people who do A-levels and degrees. And money follows narratives. Higher education gets more than four times as much public money as FE, and FE’s budgets have been falling.
At a time when the country needs the skills that FE offers, needs to listen to the people FE educates and the towns it supports, politicians of all parties have been paying less attention and less money to FE. And national journalists who are supposed to scrutinise things of national importance have barely noticed. We in the media may be better-educated than ever, but as a result, we’re missing some very big stories.