Is it worth studying film, media, and television production at a degree level? Twenty years after I did just that, I wonder if I would do the same thing again today.
My mind was always set on going to university. The idea of being able to leave home, live amongst friends, and generally make my own rules for life was an attractive prospect. Growing up in suburban Essex, my life wasn’t a struggle, but the possibility of getting away was nevertheless enticing.
In my formative years, I fell in love with The Big Breakfast. Broadcast every weekday morning on Channel 4 from 1992 to 2002; the pioneering programme would often feature members of the crew and behind-the-scenes moments. I remember thinking how much fun working there must be, and how everyone must love their jobs.
Along with a consistent interest in radio and commercials, I knew my future would always be media-based. When the time came in secondary school to think about our careers, my Kudos quiz results suggested I should be an advertising copywriter. With this, I was happy.
From there, I took GCSE Media Studies, which confirmed what I knew about newspaper bias but also print layout and design, as well as explaining the visual language of storytelling used in film and television. We could shoot and edit short films, and my friend Anthony and I even made our own football show.
In my GCSE exam, I pitched a movie idea based around the Millennium Bug causing the accidental release of a dangerous alien virus from Area 51. That's right; I left high school in the last century. From there, I went to South East Essex College to study Media Production.
The two-year GNVQ course was somewhat repetitive of my GCSE studies, as such a qualification was not a prerequisite. Some of my new contemporaries were not versed in the basics, which was somewhat frustrating. Even more so was how it became obvious that some had chosen to study Media because they thought it would be an easy ride. All watching movies and reading magazines without any actual complex work to do.
I should have taken greater note of this first warning.
Frustrations aside, the course proved what I already knew. That I was going to study media in some capacity at degree level. During that time, BBC 2 broadcast a documentary that showed older people going back to experience university. One group went to make a film at the University of Luton, which was credited on its excellent reputation in such fields.
Never one to work any harder than necessary, Luton, therefore, seemed like a pretty safe bet. Seventy miles from home meant I would be at a safe distance from my parents, but also close enough to get lifts back-and-forth on holidays. It was the only serious application on my UCAS form, which ultimately proved successful.
I expected that the Media Production with Video Skills course would be a logical extension to my already five years worth of film, TV and media studies. I was ready to learn more about classic directors, film techniques, work with state-of-the-art equipment and meet people just as enthused about all aspects of the media as I was.
In reality, the course suffered from the same issues I’d experienced in college. Once again, Media Studies qualifications were not required for entry, so much of the first year was going over familiar ground. Basic film theory and shooting practice. Ownership, ethics and distribution. Even the editing suites were tape-to-tape based, behind the digital suites I’d used at the GNVQ level.
The frustration of this carried over into the next, by which time most of the assignments felt like nothing new and therefore not worth my best efforts.
Only during the latter half of the second year, did modules such as Experimental Practices In Film and Psychoanalysis & Cinema spark brand new synapses in my brain to life. My by then highly trusted collaborators and I produced work of which we are proud to this day.
The course didn’t offer any work experience opportunities. At school, I’d spent a week at the Southend Our Price branch. College afforded me opportunities at Global Radio and Sony Music Group HQ in London. It was neither mandatory nor expected, however, to do anything like that during our degree course.
As such, I do not believe there’s anything I learnt at university that I could not have done with a job in the industry at 18. Getting more hands-on experience behind a camera or editing machine was lost to going over old ground. It felt more like I was being made lazier and resentful rather than inspired and energised.
Only until we had complete freedom in our final year to produce any film we wanted did it feel like the whole experience had all been worthwhile to date. That final project led to my colleague Chris and I being fortunate in terms of whether the degree course had set us in good stead for a career in the film and TV industry.
Before we’d even graduated, we were asked by a department within the University to produce a film about their English For Excellence program. Funded by the European Social Fund, they wanted to gather testimonies from international students who’d learnt educational English alongside their studies in Luton. The film was shown at a dinner celebrating the scheme’s success.
Not only had we just won our first paid film production job, but our graduation piece, Good Morning, was then accepted into a local international film festival to be screened the year after we left university.
This was all the motivation we needed to stay in Luton, start our own business, and see if we could continue to make films we were as happy with as Good Morning while being paid to make more conventional works. We quickly landed some wedding video production work, which further cemented our belief that running our own business was the best way forward for us.
That relative, early success gave me the impression that going to work in an entry-level position at a big studio or Soho production house would be a step backwards. Why be a runner fetching coffee and doughnuts when I’m already being financially and creatively rewarded for my craft so close to graduation?
The only way starting at the bottom of the ladder would have felt reasonable was if I hadn’t already spent three years of time and student loan going to university. I was further behind inexperience and not any further ahead in skills and knowledge after four years of going round in Media Studies circles.
Ideally, I should be able to say further education helped me to develop my self-teaching and independent study skills. But it did not. Too much repetition and opportunities for taking shortcuts had the complete opposite effect on me.
I’m by no means a model example, but if you have any doubts about your ability not to procrastinate or leave things to the last minute, I would advise choosing a course that is primarily brand new to you. If you’re not being intellectually challenged, you may not push yourself as hard as you could, let alone go above and beyond when needed.
Socially, of course, university is unparalleled. The magic of cheap nights at the Student Union, discounts across town and exposure to other lifestyles make for an intoxicating cocktail of shared experiences that are never to be forgotten. Lifelong friendships are forged in those heady years of freedom.
When I took out my Student Loan in 2001, I promised that they’d only get that money back out of my cold, dead hands. It was the best loan I’d ever get, and it would be fully maximised. As such, I graduated with a debt of just over £10,000.
Two decades years later, if I started the same course tomorrow, I could expect to pay around that for just one single year of tuition. That’s not to mention factoring in rent and general living costs of university life. The prospect of entering the job market with closer to £100,000 of debt is, quite frankly, sickening.
For that reason alone, I would suggest anyone going to university give serious consideration to whether they need a degree in their chosen field to actively pursue a career therein.
The best thing about university isn’t where you go or what you study; it’s who you meet. I was fortunate to meet two people with whom I was willing to start a business, which has in one form or another been running since 2004.
At times, we may have lost sight of our original creative intentions and struggled with being Business People, but commercial and corporate film production has paid the bills for many years. As a company, we have dedicated ourselves to helping the smaller businesses, the side hustles, and the one-person upstarts. I’ve always said it’s better than a proper job.
A few months after I graduated, YouTube was launched, which set the scene for the film industry to be turned on its head. Not long after, smartphones arrived and sparked another change to the game. It was difficult not to feel like a lot of what I had learned was now obsolete.
In the age of internet tutorials to learn software, and cheap peer-to-peer camera kit hire platforms, access to industry-level equipment has never been easier.
For anyone considering going to university to study Creative Arts, I would give myself at least one gap year to pursue as much relative work experience possible. Money will always be an issue, whether it’s through supporting low or unpaid early jobs or crippling postgraduate debt.
But by experiencing your chosen industry firsthand as early as possible, you’ll have a much better perspective on whether it's right for you and what your most effective route to learning the trade will be.