From the Age of Aquarius to the Age of the Vicarious

By Tom Davey, Editor, Environmental Science & Engineering Magazine

The word Oxbridge, a contraction of Oxford and Cambridge, has become etymological shorthand to describe the pinnacle of higher learning in Britain. Recently, the University of Westminster's School of Communication styled itself as the "Oxbridge of media studies". The school has invested $60 million in buildings, equipment and systems, making the media studies centre the largest in Europe. Courses from design to computing, film, video, stills photography and digital imaging science are available.

That a single institution can invest such a huge amount, underlines the growing prestige of media studies in Britain. But there are detractors. A former British government education secretary has described the discipline as a cultural Disneyland for the weaker-minded. The number of applicants tells a different story. More people are applying for media studies than for courses in chemistry, combined sciences and other traditional academic subjects. We have gone from the Age of Aquarius to the Age of the Vicarious. Demands for the reporting, videotaping and photography of events have overtaken demands for the designers, and actual builders of the material things which comprise modern society. This is also evident in environmental affairs where media-savvy activists are inevitably sought out for quotes, while chemists and engineers are often shut out of debates which require their expertise.

The University of Westminster and its School of Communication has a history entwined with the history of the development of mass media, photography, film and video in Britain. The policy of linking education to work practice was adopted in 1883 when the university's forerunner, the Royal Polytechnic Institution was founded. Later it merged with Harrow College in 1988 to form what would later become the University of Westminster.

Facilities now include more than $4 million worth of film, radio, and TV equipment which grace the purpose-built studios. There are 200 square metre studios available for TV and film production, numerous editing suites, radio studios, and other equipment. One university spokesperson said that: "Many people in the broadcasting industry would crawl over hot coals for such equipment".

So the hardware is good, but what is the philosophy of this impressive array of buildings and technology? David Faddy, head of the University of Westminster's School of Communication says: "We are not looking to produce people who can just operate the technology; we are looking for people who are going into production, research, scriptwriting, or the practice of journalism". Does it work? Well, few would deny that the Brits lead the world in upscale documentary and theatrical television series. Some of this stems from the almost mandatory apprenticeship in live theatre which British actors willingly go through as a rite of passage. This creates an environment where great writing and acting are enhanced by television technology.

The university uses the term cross-skiing to describe how photography students can also learn desktop publishing, film and television techniques. The university's own photographic and electronic imaging science course combines photographic studies with science and electronic imaging, opening up careers in TV, cine camera, photography and much more.

Cross-skiing is no mere academic or techno-fantasy; it is now a growing part of media work as professionals are expected to do more than one kind of work. Of over 5,000 members of Britain's National Union of Journalists who responded to a survey, one third said their work now covered more than one skill area. Employers in the media industry are beginning to demand cross-skiing from their staff.

Joseph Pulitzer said the three most important skills in journalism were accuracy, accuracy and accuracy; yet, from what I read in the UK tabloids when I was over there recently, accuracy was apparently not one of the skills required. In fact, cross-screeching would be a more appropriate term to describe the headline writing skills which might accurately be defined as noise pollution in print. Quite often the tabloid headlines mimic Huxley's Brave New World where perception truly overcame reality Ð cross-skiing of another type? Clearly, human taste and judgement are still vital Ð even in an age of rapidly advancing technology.

Tom Davey is author of For Whom The Polls Tell. He has been a journalist in England, Australia and Canada, and has lectured on communications at several universities across Canada.
E-mail:[email protected].

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