News Analysis: Review threatens practical training

As PR courses face up to the possibility of funding cuts, Ian Hall asks whether the ongoing review could affect graduates' preparedness for real-world PR.

The cash ploughed into the growing number of PR courses on offer in England is under review - and course leaders fear cutbacks.

The Institute of Public Relations last week wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the body in charge of university financing, in a bid to stave off potential cuts.

The first university PR course launched more than two decades ago and the number of institutions offering a PR degree has mushroomed since then - the IPR has endorsed 17 undergraduate and 12 post-graduate courses, plus various diplomas.

HEFCE reviewed its funding method for teaching last year. One of the outcomes of this review, and subsequent consultation with the higher-education sector, was that further analysis would be carried out on the relative costs of different types of media studies (including PR and comms) and sport-science courses.

Funding under review

Courses are split into four price brands that are supposed to reflect the cost of delivery: band 'A' is for courses such as medicine, 'B' is for lab-based subjects such as chemistry, 'C' is for part-lab-based courses such as geography, while 'D' is the preserve of lecture-room-based courses such as history.

Media and comms courses are currently split between bands B, C and D - but lecturers are concerned the review will relegate more to D. Some fear such downgrading could spell funding cuts of 30 per cent, cuts that are most likely to affect the provision of the more practical - i.e. costly - elements of PR education. Practical elements include website and newsletter design, studio-based media training, radio programming and work with project-planning software for events.

For the moment, at least, PR courses are safe. A survey was sent to all higher-education institutions in England this October, asking for the proportion of students' time spent in three different types of facility: standard, specialised and highly specialised. The results of this survey will go to the HEFCE board in January and will help dictate how much funding it allocates to each course from 2005-2006.

The month or so until then will see PR course leaders bidding to ensure people are aware of the potential consequences of a funding cut. IPR president Anne Gregory, who is also professor of PR at Leeds Metropolitan University, wants industry support on the issue - she suggests concerned parties write to HEFCE to stress why PR courses need resources, or even contact their MP.

University of Central Lancashire principal lecturer in PR Eric Koper is concerned that different courses will be treated identically. 'Let us continue with the resources we have - we want more funding not less,' he pleads.

Gregory points out: 'There is demand for more training and education - as illustrated by the number of students wanting to get on PR courses and what employers want in respect of PR skills. If courses have to cut back, this will put the industry back.'

Many courses offer students the chance to spend a year on a work placement.

Gregory believes the HEFCE review could make such placements more widespread because if students are deprived of practical training there will be an extra imperative to take a year out to gain real work experience.

HEFCE is seeking to reassure lecturers that PR courses would only be banded with other theory-based courses if the responses to its survey showed this was necessary.

In a statement on its review of the funding of media and sport courses, HEFCE says: 'We are not considering downgrading the funding of all communications and media courses. The purpose of the review is to provide a more accurate basis on which to allocate funding so that it more accurately reflects the time students spend in different types of facility.

'Until the results of the survey have been analysed, we cannot say what the impact will be but it could increase as well as decrease funding.

However, in terms of a university's overall block grant (from HEFCE ), the impact is not generally likely to be significant.'

Facilities under threat?

But some lecturers are sceptical about HEFCE's motives. Sunderland University head of journalism and PR Chris Rushton says: 'This could reduce some programmes to nothing more than theoretical lectures, without the hands-on media workshops that are vital to making graduates employable. It will threaten staff-student ratios and universities' ability to provide realistic working environments for the next generation of PR practitioners.'

Sunderland last year opened a £10m media centre with rooms equipped with PA Newswire feeds, design software and access to industry databases such as Mediadisk and Media Proof.

Rushton believes such dedicated facilities will enable the university to avoid a banding drop - but he says less 'hands-on' PR degrees at rival institutions could be 'hit hard' by the review, which could bring, for example, less staff-student contact time.

One lecturer suspects universities that provide mass lecturing will be hit hardest, while those specialising in workshop-style tutorials should escape serious cuts. But another fears tuition in areas such as radio-programme editing or website and corporate-brochure design could face the axe.

The review has brought to the fore what some see as a growing difference in emphasis between two types of PR programme, with some colleges viewing PR as a branch of business and marketing, and others as sitting within media schools. For example, the cuts are 'unlikely' to affect Luton University, according to senior lecturer in PR Neville Hunt, because its PR course 'is firmly placed within the business school' and thus less likely to come under the HEFCE microscope.

Overall, concern among colleges is widespread. Gregory points out: 'Graduates will only be less able to hit the ground running (in the real world) if courses are less well resourced. Employers want more skills, not fewer.'

The PR lecturers who await the outcome of the review would second that.

IPR-APPROVED COLLEGES

- Bournemouth University

- College of St Mark & St John

- Huddersfield University

- Leeds Metropolitan University

- Lincoln University

- Luton University

- Queen Margaret University College

- Sunderland University

- Teeside University

- Trinity and All Saints University College

- Ulster University

- University of Central England

- University of Central Lancashire

Chart shows colleges offering IPR-approved

undergraduate PR degrees. Source: IPR

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