The truth about the state of public relations degrees

This week brought disappointing reports that public relations degrees at Bournemouth University are shutting their doors.

The closure of the PR degree course at Bournemouth is not as big a problem as it might appear, argues Alastair McCapra
The closure of the PR degree course at Bournemouth is not as big a problem as it might appear, argues Alastair McCapra

This follows on the news that the PR course at Edinburgh Napier University is also closing down, while the University of West London’s disappeared last year.

What is going on?

There are many reasons why a university may close a course. UCAS data show the category ‘mass communication and documentation’ has dropped this year, but not by much (and not all PR courses fall under this classification anyway).

However, universities are fighting for position in competitive global markets and the fact that a course has met its target numbers is no longer enough to save it.

Four things they don't teach you about PR at university

Senior management is now looking at which subjects have the best market prospects with campuses in Malaysia or China, student satisfaction ratings, and REF 2021.

The closure of Bournemouth will still leave us with 29 undergraduate and 20 graduate PR courses - this does not feel like under provision.

The truth is more nuanced, however – some of them have leaders who are part-time or practitioner-lecturers.

Universities may see them as marginal rather than core, and they may lack the political heft to fight their corner when periodic changes of strategy are announced.

What does all this mean for the future of PR?

The latest State of the Profession figures show that just 17 per cent of PR practitioners have degrees in PR or comms, while 57 per cent have degrees in another subject. 32 per cent of practitioners have a postgraduate degree but less than half of these people (13 per cent) have a masters in PR, while 18 per cent have a masters in another field.

These numbers have not changed much in the last five years.

Many people come into PR as a second or third career, and they are not particularly likely to have a degree in the subject.

Some people are concerned that Bournemouth is going to fold its PR teaching into a broader ‘marketing communications’ degree.

Again, responses to the State of the Profession year on year consistently show convergence with marketing as a challenge for the sector - in 2018 this was ranked as the sixth most important.

If combined degrees help produce future professionals with a broader range of PR and marketing skills, that may not be a bad addition to our mix.

The CIPR supports a strong and diverse public relations profession that has a robust knowledge base and a clear sense of its social licence to operate, as well as a range of entry points and career pathways.

University degrees are a key part of our ecosystem and we can’t be relaxed about clear indicators that some courses are on the way out.

At the same time, the closure even of a programme as supposedly secure as Bournemouth’s is not necessarily an indication that some existential crisis is about to break over us.

The signs are hard to read. We gaze up at the comets, and wonder what they portend.

Alastair McCapra is chief executive of the CIPR

Thumbnail image ©GettyImages

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