Ravensbourne highlights Broadcast Technology course achievements but warns of industry “skills crisis within three years”

Every June leading London-based digital media and design college Ravensbourne highlights some of the achievements of its third-year students in a showcase branded – appropriately enough – the Degree Show. Whilst Ravensbourne’s remit encompasses numerous disciplines from fashion to graphic design to interactive product development, its appeal to prospective broadcast technology students is undeniably extensive, encompassing a host of foundation, undergraduate and apprenticeship-oriented courses.

Welcoming SVG Europe to the second of three Degree Show event days, Ravensbourne Broadcast Technology Course Leader Martyn Gates notes that the annual showcases “incorporates several important elements. One aspect is to provide a showcase for major projects from third-year students, ranging from fashion to digital film. But there is also a broadcast aspect to the show, with some pre-recorded and live content distributed on Freeview HD & SD, as well as streaming via the JANET network and YouTube.”

Although the technologies involved and “the nature of the marketplace” into which graduates are headed have undergone dramatic change since the first Degree Show-style events more than 30 years ago, “the fundamental aspect of students demonstrating their abilities not just through written examination, but also through the capacity to ‘make and do’ remains the same,” remarks Professor Jeremy Barr, associate dean in the Department of Production. “Of course, we like it when things go wrong, too, as that requires students to undertake systems analysis and take action to resolve a problem.”

And as SVG Europe tours the Greenwich campus it is increasingly evident that Ravensbourne students have a panoply of contemporary broadcast tools to help them deliver high quality projects, with Adobe, Genelec, Grass Valley, Lawo, NewTek and SAM among the many trusted vendors whose equipment enjoys heavy usage at the college.

‘More specialist’

Invited to consider the ways in which the formation of its courses has changed in recent years, Gates – who has more than 30 years’ experience as an engineer for London Weekend Television and, latterly, as a consultant advising broadcast organisations on the impact of emerging technologies – immediately responds: “More specialism so that the four courses within Broadcast Technology recognise the main areas of employment within the industry. The Systems course is about infrastructure and signals from the camera to the various devices on which we now watch content. The Computing course is more about coding, programming, database work and IP encapsulation; all of those methods that are used to get video content over data networks. The Audio course covers mixing, ProTools, operational techniques, and some of the latest elements around spatialisation and object-based audio. Then the fourth and final course is Outside Broadcast Engineering.”

Guiding SVG Europe around examples of some of the most exceptional Broadcast Technology projects of the last academic year, Gates alights on Daniel Regan’s spatialisation solution aimed at establishing a correlation between the viewer’s perspective on video content (comprising five single-camera sequences of musicians performing together) and the audio it accompanies. Adobe Premiere Pro, Sennheiser headphones spatial audio reproduction tool SoundScape Renderer are part of a solution that Gates describes as “truly exceptional. Normally we get one or two of these outstanding projects in each year, but I think this is one of the best we have ever had.”

Later that day the student’s project went on to win the Ogilvy Award. But while high-calibre students are continuing to emerge, the stark reality is that there aren’t nearly enough young people contemplating a career in broadcast engineering in the first place. At present, the new intake of the Broadcast Technology is around 20-25 across the four courses – a total that may rise to 2017 for the 2016 intake. Around 30 per year “would be about the maximum with the current infrastructure, but with more space we could get to 40 – and that is the sort of total we need [for the industry], really. Every year I get contacts from manufacturers and OB providers who are keen to take on our engineering students, but it is often the case that they have already found employment.”

‘Nearing a crisis point’

It is therefore no surprise that Gates strongly agrees with the suggestion that we are now in the early phase of an acute skills crisis. “That is true and it is getting worse,” he says. “There is a general feeling amongst the big employers that we need to get more people onto courses or otherwise we are going to be in real trouble. Two years ago there was a view that we would hit a real shortage five years hence, so you can now say that we are potentially three years away from reaching a crisis point of there not being enough trained engineers in the industry.”

Professor David Crawford – who in addition to his role as IBC Conference executive producer, technology sessions, set up the Work-Based Learning courses and visiting professor at Ravensbourne – confirms that work is also ongoing to enhance the appeal of the apprenticeship-based degree courses. “We are in the process of [revising these courses] so that companies who want apprentices can take up that scheme,” he says.

Making it easier for broadcast service providers and vendors to identify and recruit high-quality graduates is a key tenet of the SVG Europe Educational Initiative, and our members and sponsors should expect several related announcements in the months ahead.

‘Unlike a commercial enterprise’

While taking steps to ensure that supply is capable of satisfying demand constitutes one significant challenge, maintaining a suitably contemporary specification of equipment is another. Gates confirms that it is a delicate balancing act: “On one hand you have to keep the existing workflows so that students can be assessed consistently [over a period of time]. On the other, you do need to ensure that the latest technologies and workflows are accommodated. For example, we have still have an SDI-based infrastructure at the moment, but we are giving thought to how we can migrate to an IP-based one. We are not operating in the fashion of a commercial enterprise, and so there are a lot of different factors to consider.”

Nonetheless, recent years have seen Ravensbourne and its students implement some decidedly futuristic workflows – ranging from Elemental Technologies-based 4K live streaming of 2015 award ceremonies, to a temporary AES67 networked audio implementation featuring Lawo mixing technology and the Ravenna AoIP protocol.

Ravensbourne’s cutting edge credentials are not in any doubt, as underlined by its impressive current graduate employment rate of 93%. But there is “concern about the number of prospective students coming into the industry in future, and we look forward to working with SVG Europe and others to help address this situation,” concludes Gates.

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