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PR degrees are not dead, there are as many PR undergrad courses as there have ever been - but they've evolved

How did you come to work in public relations? For most practitioners the answer is ‘by chance’ or ‘I fell into it’ rather than a deliberate decision to pursue a PR career.

A professional career choice has been possible since the introduction of PR degree courses. The first in the UK was a Masters postgraduate qualification at University of Stirling established in 1988, followed by undergraduate degrees in Bournemouth, Leeds, and Plymouth a year later.

Over the past 35 years the PR industry and higher education provision have changed enormously. Yet we still see advice about landing an early career role in PR focused on personality traits and everyday skills rather than specialist degrees as the foundation of sustainable professional careers.

I wrote about a growth in opportunities to study a PR degree in 2007 – when a search of the UCAS site for ‘public relations’ revealed 281 courses including ‘a huge number of combined subjects’. The same search today returns 258 courses from 67 providers. There are 36 Universities in the UK that are a PRCA Partner and/or have CIPR course recognition.

A recent research report by Dr Kevin Ruck and Richard Bailey offers a useful overview of PR Education, Training and Accreditation. Its narrative about the ‘rise and fall’ of public relations undergraduate degree courses in the UK warrants further investigation.

Let’s start with the report’s claim that ‘by conjecture, a predictable end point’ for PR as an undergraduate University subject is to be merged with marketing. Or rather submerged. I accept that public relations is a promotional industry, although a marketing-led degree will tend to position PR as little more than a subset of marcomms.

Of course, conjecture is not certainty. The future of PR degrees depends on choices, and the key driver in decision-making is employability. This supposes universities are ‘farm systems’ where undergraduates are prepared to be ‘oven ready’, that is, of immediate value to employers.

Here we have a conundrum. My experience of working in higher education has involved a global community of PR practitioner–academics engaged in education, research, publishing, and establishing relationships with employers and practitioners. Undoubtedly their commitment to underpinning practice with scholarship contributed to the success of undergraduate PR degrees evident in the employability of high calibre graduates.

Yet, set against the industry’s exponential growth, the PR graduate population makes up a small percentage of those recruited into early career roles. Likewise, as I’ve seen in the motor industry, interest in employing PR students during a placement year is far greater than available candidates.

Consequently the industry has recruited graduates of non-PR degree courses, alongside former journalists, colleagues from other functions, and anyone else with an interest in working in PR. As a result it’s been a hard slog to normalise the evidence-informed body of knowledge studied by PR undergraduates within wider practice. There are signs this is beginning to happen, for instance through the work of Professor Jim Macnamara into evaluation of public communication and organisational listening.

It is vital that choices are made now to ensure a healthy future for specialism in public relations at UK universities. This can’t be left to those studying or leading Masters level qualifications in PR or corporate/strategic communications. As Kevin Ruck and Richard Bailey report, there can be practical and academic limitations with such postgraduate programmes. On the other hand, robust, specialist MA courses, alongside professional qualifications, and doctoral study provide a ‘off-the-job’ lifelong learning opportunities for experienced PR practitioners, especially when funded and/or supported more broadly by employers.

Equally, securing the discipline’s future as a respected undergraduate degree subject is essential. Being able to study a body of knowledge and its practical application – specifically and in-depth – prior to pursuing a PR career is a key marker that the discipline provides a professional career choice and not just a job into which anyone can fall.

Moreover, without specialist qualifications, there is unlikely to be an extensive and respected presence of PR academics within UK higher education institutes – just at a time when their contribution should be most valued.

It’s not too late to ensure that PR undergraduate degrees continue to provide a professional career choice in the UK as well as elsewhere in the world.

Here are two ways to get involved by locating Universities teaching PR courses and/or keeping up to date with latest academic thinking.

Discover Universities teaching PR in UK / Links to find latest PR academic thinking

Discover which Universities teach PR courses

CIPR Recognised University courses (also Global Alliance accredited)

PRCA Partner Universities

UCAS listing (Undergraduate and Postgraduate)

Guardian UK universities ranking (marketing and public relations)

The Student Room Uni Guide Public Relations courses

Keep up to date and share latest academic thinking

PR journals and other useful sites (all/some open access papers) include: Institute for Public Relations (includes PR Journal), PR Inquiry, Public Relations Review, Corporate Communications (CCIJ), Journal of Communication, Journal of Public Relations Research, Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, PRism

Search and create alerts (including AI options) include: Google Scholar, Semantic Scholar, Research Rabbit.

Book search and reviews: Google, PR Academy Insights.

PRmoment Podcast episodes:

Education Vs Experience: What are the benefits of an in-career PR qualification?

What happened to PR degrees?

Article written by Heather Yaxley. PhD. FCIPR

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