The future of public relations education

7 Aug

Guess which university is currently recruiting for a part-time public relations lecturer? Newcastle University (here's the ad).

This is worth noting because for past two decades undergraduate PR degree courses have only been offered in the UK by the 'new' universities (ie former polytechnics). Public relations was seen as too commercial and unsufficiently academic for the more traditional universities.

Now every HE institution is confronted by a more competitive landscape in which money follows students – and public relations ticks several boxes, notably for graduate employability. There's now a Centre for Corporate Reputation at Oxford University; I understand Leeds University has hired our former colleague Lee Edwards from Manchester Business School to boost its public relations and communications team; and Newcastle University is now offering public relations (within a media and cultural studies context).

This move towards academic respectability is good news for public relations as a discipline; it's good news for the professional bodies such as the CIPR; it's good news for students who have greater choice. It may be bad news however for some of the 'new' universities who may not be prepared for this more bracing competitive landscape.

To draw on an analogy, there are 92 professional football clubs across the four English divisions (Premier League, Championship etc). Despite promotion and relegation, the top teams remain remarkably stable from season to season. So it is with universities (though there are currently more than 92 of them).

Just as some football clubs go into administration (though remarkably few given the poor finances of most of them), some universities may not survive in the new landscape.

You don't have to buy a ticket to a professional club to watch football. Similarly, you don't have to go to university to study public relations. There have always been qualifications and training courses aimed at practitioners (and would-be practitioners).

Yet university remains valuable for those who can benefit from the rounded experience on offer and the useful half-way house between the structure of school and the challenges of the workplace. Public relations combines the intellectual rigour of a university degree with practical applicability and very high rates of employability.

I wasn't faced with tuition fees and was encouraged to 'follow my interests'. While this remains good advice, it also makes sense to consider the future before committing to student debt. In this context, I'm confident in what we're offering and am pleased that more universities are coming to share this view.


3 Responses to “The future of public relations education”

  1. Leah Eser 08/08/2011 at 11:42 am #

    This is very interesting, as when applying for University I noticed that hardly any of red-brick universities did not offer Public Relations and I wondered whether this may be a reflection on the course.
    However, during my studies I have come to learn that this is not the case at all, and that Public Relations is great for employability and preparing you for the world outside University (as long as you take advantage of work experience and the opportunities it brings)
    Clearly, more universities are recognising this, and the growth of the media and PR industry amongst students. Although this may cause competition, I think the strong base of PR students coming from polytechnic universities like Leeds Metropolitan will keep our reputation strong!

  2. Richard Bailey 08/08/2011 at 11:50 am #

    You know how the ‘old boy network’ was always said to favour those going to the best public schools and the older universities?
    Well, we have 20 plus years of PR graduates in the workplace – many of whom are now bosses and recruiters.
    I do welcome the new courses, but it will take them time to build this up. There’s more to a PR course than modules on media and culture!

  3. 09/08/2011 at 12:58 pm #

    This a fascinating play by Newcastle University and for me, highlights two important issues.
    Firstly, it demonstrates how market forces are beginning to take hold in the increasingly competitive HE industry and that universities, both red brick and ‘new’ will begin to aggressively chase students and government funding by offering popular courses with high popularity and employability, at the expense of more traditional courses.
    Secondly, red brick universities teaching communications signals the maturation and acceptance of communications as an integral business function, on the same level as HR, finance, legal – and rightly so.
    It shows that comms has finally arrived at the top table and is recognised as an important strategic discipline, and not just something tactical that is ‘turned on’ for launches and crisis.
    On a side note, Newcastle University have an innovative approach to academic courses and deserve credit for such dynamism as there partnership with PwC shows:

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