Credit: Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

Are degrees really necessary for a career in journalism? It is the age-old industry question becoming more and more salient.

With the cost of living crisis, some students are at tipping points: one in ten students use foodbanks and four in ten live off £100 or less a month. Meanwhile, wherever you look - Indeed, Target, even the UK government’s career website - the advice to get into journalism is clear: degrees are a must.

Analysis of the current journalism workforce backs it up. According to the latest NCTJ report, nearly nine in ten UK journalists possess a degree-level (level 4) or higher-level qualification, compared to the five inten across the general national workforce. The report also outlines junior journalists entering the industry do it with a higher level of education than their seniors.

This combination of factors leaves both graduate and non-graduate new journalists without connections trying to get into schemes that are designed to keep them out: unpaid or low-paid, competitive schemes with hundreds of applications per role, tasks to complete, and no straightforward way in.

A foot in the door

Katie Wilson was a trainee at the Mirror on its two-year programme and is now a broadcast journalist at BBC Breakfast. Getting a place on this competitive scheme was not smooth sailing.

She gained some support from a mentor through the Crankstart Scholarships, available to low-income students studying at Oxford university colleges. But it was far from enough.

Though she applied for entry-level newspapers and broadcasters jobs, she felt, as a working class candidate, unfamiliar with the necessary buzzwords.

"For some schemes, university isn’t a requirement but the expectation is there,” she says. This expectation makes the scheme look open to a more diverse talent pool, while keeping the door closed.

Getting through the first round of applications was difficult enough, yet Wilson remembered the difficulty of writing tests, especially when the publisher kept their content behind paywalls.

"I found it weird to have expectations to know the readership because it limits to certain people who would be typical readers. It's not what you want: you would want people with fresh ideas."

Wilson believes she got accepted onto the Mirror's scheme because her parents, both nurses, read the paper: "I played on my strength. I know their audience, my family is part of it."

Though these schemes also offer the industry standard NCTJ training, many UK universities will also offer NCTJ-accredited courses to students. It puts university-trained candidates at an advantage, with no regard for the background of the applicants.

What can be done to bring change?

When asked about the increase in numbers of journalists with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, Nikki Akinola, senior diversity and inclusion co-ordinator at the NCTJ, said that the organisation has been "at the forefront of developing journalism apprenticeships at both junior and senior levels".

She added that "those in higher education are not necessarily a full representation of the wider population and so that then translates into those recruited into journalism from university." The annual NCTJ Diversity in Journalism report even demonstrates the trend is getting worse; proportionally fewer journalists coming from working-class backgrounds.

Last year, award-winning investigative journalist and founder of now-defunct the Overtake Robyn Vinter was on the Future of Journalism podcast. There, she explained how she found the journalists she recruited for The Overtake brought something different: "You don't need a degree, you need training to be a great journalist."

Some steps are taken in the right direction to provide more training. Nikki Akinola said the NCTJ is providing more non-graduate entry routes into journalism, by expanding apprenticeships, foundations and other initiatives for school leavers and those who want to change careers.

Other initiatives exist in the media like ScreenSkills and show it can be done. The charity provides apprenticeships and training for the film and TV industry, offering London Living Wage while only requiring GCSE (level 2) qualifications.

Developing these alternative routes into journalism can only work, as outlined by the social mobility commission, with an effort to target those who need it most through partnerships, and that the information is clear and accessible.

For the media, it could mean enabling applicants to access their content freely, accepting profiles that will be different to those they usually hire, having considered criteria for the scheme aligned with their objectives, providing parallel and paid routes into journalism, more transparency in the data related to their staff and, finally, support existing diversity initiatives run by grassroot organisations.

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