Skills school

Publishing has long been a popular career option, but how would-be employees reach their workplace goal has changed dramatically in the last 20 years.

Graduate traineeships were always few, so for years a secretarial start permitted learning while shadowing someone more experienced. The arrival of the PC, and associated universal acquisition of keyboard skills, made early career development less straightforward.

Enter universities, stage left. Oxford Brookes led the field, but there are now more than a dozen universities and colleges offering a blend of intellectual enquiry and professional preparation leading to an associated academic degree. The benefits to both parties are self-evident.

Universities have identified a popular subject; one that does great things for both their employability stats and their increasing obligation to establish effective links with industry. Such courses attract an international cohort, and a wider range of graduates than the more traditionally assumed publishing background of an English Literature degree. Long-term, a wider skills base is valuable as the publishing industry seeks to address the convergence of creative industries.

Publishers' training budgets are reduced, and while the university route is still not the industry's only entry-point, it does deliver an ongoing supply of well-informed, thoughtful and (most importantly) ready-to-operate employees.

Now the wider implications of this development need fuller consideration. How well are universities preparing those who enrol? How do they develop and maintain a curriculum that is up-to-date when the industry is changing so very quickly? Dissertation and practical project modules are creating an immensely useful body of work—but are the right areas being investigated, and how do publishers access findings?

Publishing houses have grown used to “placement students” and “interns”, but have been unspecific about both terminology and role. It's so easy for those volunteering in order to improve their CV to become an ongoing organisational prop, with disturbing implications for permanent employees. And all the while academics from more traditional disciplines debate publishing's place in the academy, replicating the experience of those researching and teaching marketing some 30 years ago.

Significantly (alarmingly?) there has been no ongoing debate between universities and industry about what should be on offer, who should teach it, its relative value, role and location. This symposium provides just such an opportunity.

Hosted by Kingston University, with support from the PA and the Association for Publishing Education, a range of key speakers (including the PA's chief executive, Richard Mollet) will tackle issues that have been glossed over. What obligations does the industry have towards those who provide their labour for nothing? How long should placement be to provide a meaningful experience? How can associated research best be made available within the industry?

The key question, perhaps, is why this debate has taken so long to arrange.

The symposium takes place at Kingston University on 17th January.