Journalism sold short in media courses

TERTIARY TROUBLES: Universities are letting journalism students and their potential industry down, writes John Henningham

JOURNALISM has been taught on and off at Australian and New Zealand universities for more than 80 years. One would think that by now they’d be getting it right, but I’ve concluded that they’re getting it more wrong than right — certainly in Australia.

For this I blame the industry almost as much as the universities — for they have relinquished their earlier claims on a supervisory role in course development.

The earliest courses sprang from industry or professional representations, whereby small courses were established with a view of providing a tertiary-educated workforce in journalism. Partnerships forged by a few enlightened people at senior levels in journalism and in academia resulted in diploma courses that provided professional and contextual education to small groups of vocationally oriented students.

For various reasons the courses provided only a minute stream of graduates to the profession, and most programs were abandoned between the wars. In-house cadetships became the norm.

In Australia, tertiary education on a large scale had its origins in the 1970s with the development of colleges of advanced education, which sought to develop vocational streams of study.

The colleges ultimately became universities, continuing their involvement in journalism education.

Although many courses were established with industry approval and with some degree of industry control or input, the self-accrediting nature of Australian universities has seen a distancing of modern tertiary institutions from the news media industry.

The industry has by default allowed tertiary journalism courses to proliferate in number and in the enrolment of students, as well as in the development of teaching programs often far removed from industry needs and expectations.

In parallel with the development of vocational journalism education in the past generation has been the growth of media studies as a university discipline. University administrators have found it convenient to marry these two strands because of a superficial resemblance, with often disastrous results for journalism.

An additional strand is that of vocational education in other forms of communication, such as marketing and public relations (which belong in business schools but are often yoked with journalism, again to its disadvantage).

Perhaps the biggest problem for courses in journalism is the widespread adoption of the bachelor of arts model in providing a template for course development.

This currently involves a teaching and learning environment of only two hours of lectures and one hour of tutorials a week per subject. (This model suits traditional arts disciplines, which involve extended essay writing and lots of reflective reading between classes.) Students typically enrol in four subjects each semester, resulting in only 12 hours of teaching a week, of which only three are for a journalism subject.

Of those three, two are spent in large lecture groups, while one is a small group tutorial. Tutorial groups were once 10 to 12 in number: they are now more commonly 25 or 30 in the larger courses. Hence, students’ involvement in practical journalism education is limited to once-a-week 50-minute participation in a crowded tutorial class. And there may be only 12 such classes a semester. Little practical output is derived from such a teaching model.

In many courses first year students write only half a dozen assessable stories per semester.

They perhaps write as many stories in a year as a cadet journalist writes in a couple of days.

The situation will often improve in later years as numbers thin out, but the overwhelming pressure of numbers within public universities Australia-wide results in a vocational education that is often sub-standard.

The most recent national surveys show that only 63 per cent of journalism and communication students express satisfaction with their courses. The same course experience questionnaire shows that only 48 per cent give high ratings to the quality of teaching.

Drop-out rates from university courses are 40 per cent or more, and of course there is mass absenteeism during the teaching year.

The pressure of numbers results in insufficient or zero one-to-one teaching, inadequate levels of feedback and below-standard levels of practical work in journalism.

While universities blame federal funding policies for the situation, an examination of how universities disperse the funds they are provided with tells an interesting story.

For a humanities or social sciences degree, including journalism, public universities quote a “full fee” of around $11,000 a year. This is the fee overseas students are charged, and it represents the funding level per head that universities receive from government and from students via the HECS or student loan system.

Obviously a portion of these funds must be deployed for central administrative purposes and costs, including the library.

But the proportion of funds passed on to departments for the key purpose of teaching students is scandalously low.

When I was head of a university department, I found that the bureaucracy paid only $2800 a year per full-time student. From this had to come all the costs of running a department, including wages for teaching, technical and administrative staff, plus the cost of computers, telephones, TV and radio equipment, etc. Per head it was perhaps half the figure provided to a primary school principal, and only a quarter of the so-called full fee.

The consequence of such a funding squeeze, in which journalism students are essentially subsidising students in other departments as well as the university’s research activities, strategic initiatives and executive salaries, is the inflation in class sizes and daily worsening teacher-student ratios.

Some simple arithmetic will show that an income of less than $3000 per full-time student can only result in larger and fewer classes in order to make ends meet.

The funding allocation I experienced resulted in provision of only around $350 per student per subject. It’s easy to see why enrolments of hundreds of students are necessary to cover basic costs, as well as continuing economies.

In many subjects tutorials have been abolished, and even lecture time reduced. One major course I know of has been reduced to half an hour a week.

ALL these developments should be of concern to the industry, yet they now have no formal role in approving or even expressing an opinion on such matters.

When I set up my own course I contacted all the daily newspaper editors in Queensland and NSW to ask them their views on what should be in a vocational journalism course.

They were all happy to talk and to give me suggestions for subject areas I was able to incorporate in my curriculum. The interesting thing was how many of them expressed surprise and delight at being asked.

For most other vocational areas at university, the profession is able to exercise considerable guidance on what is taught and how it is taught.

Senior members of the profession or industry have roles on faculty boards or advisory committees. Their approval is required before any significant changes can be made. This relationship flows from the registered status of most of these vocational areas.

Often advisory committees exist in the case of journalism, but my experience is that the university is interested in their input only if they say what the university wants to hear.

Queensland University’s decision three years ago to merge journalism with communication studies, to strip it of its own governance and to introduce anti-journalism areas like public relations, was made in the face of objections from the department’s industry advisers.

The process made a mockery of the whole existence of the advisory committee, and I understand it has not been reconvened in subsequent years.

Journalism has become a means of attracting students to universities: the attraction of journalism as a course of study is a major bonus for universities in their marketing campaigns. Students in their thousands embark on journalism courses each year, unaware that only a tiny proportion of them can ever hope for jobs as journalists.

The willingness to use journalism as a hook for students fascinated by news media is in contrast to an attitude prevailing in many tertiary institutions of contempt for journalism and the media. In academic board and faculty meetings there is probably no institution, aside from the federal government, that receives such a bagging as the media. Much of the condemnation is based on ignorance, selective reading and prejudice, and it was perhaps ever thus.

Meanwhile the emergence of media studies has provided a convenient academic home for most journalism courses, despite the fundamental differences between them.

Journalism teachers have found themselves occupying lower-level positions in departments dominated by media theorists with PhDs and limited life experience, whose teaching and research endeavours are often directed at vilifying the news media and the practice of journalism. Teachers are told their only hope of promotion or tenure is to embrace such academic paradigms, including the whacky and unproductive fantasies of cultural studies.

Students in such departments seeking a vocational education in journalism have to endure theoretical courses of study that bear little relation to the practice of journalism.

Research is a vital part of the academic enterprise. But while some university disciplines recognise non-academic output as equivalent to research — eg: the creative work of musicians or architects — newspaper articles are expressly forbidden as substituting research publications for journalists.

In other words, the very means by which journalism educators can maintain their professional profile and credibility — by continuing to be journalists — is closed to them as a means of formal recognition for purposes of promotion or tenure.

The irony in this is that, unlike many professions that are concerned with applying sets of learned rules to familiar situations, the prime work of journalists is research. It is what journalists do all the time.

The fundamental, ongoing research and analysis activity of journalists is denied recognition by our national research-granting structures. Journalism teachers are therefore neutralised as journalists. They are driven to re-invent themselves as academics — and generally not very good ones.

The failure of universities to recognise the worth of journalists’ professional output means absurd requirements are often specified in job advertisements.

People with a BA who may have edited a daily newspaper or been a political or foreign correspondent are ineligible for senior teaching positions, as opposed to journalists who left the industry at J1 level but have a PhD.

The dissatisfaction many in the industry feel with university approaches to journalism education is illustrated by the major media groups’ recent establishment of in-house training schemes.

Both Fairfax and News Ltd have developed detailed journalism education courses designed to teach journalism from scratch. If universities were doing their job there would be no need for such courses, except at the level of familiarising recruits with house styles and procedures (as well as the important ongoing role of professional development).

This is not an argument for a journalism degree as the only useful means of entry to the profession. Employers value graduates of various backgrounds, including economics, political science and law.

But a strong structure of professional journalism education in Australia ought to have resulted in such graduates enrolling in postgraduate journalism programs, as they do in the US and in New Zealand.

Strong graduate schools are the appropriate environment for developing meaningful research in journalism, including informed evaluations of news media performance, readership studies and research methods which can help the news media industry and the profession of journalism.

At one stage I believed that such ivy league journalism schools were achievable in Australia. Unfortunately the wrong type of people have taken charge of key journalism schools — while industry has averted its gaze. Industry has been inactive in requiring accreditation of journalism programs. It has acquiesced in the marriage of journalism and media studies (as well as journalism and such hostile occupations as PR).

None of these criticisms mean universities are not producing graduates who become excellent journalists. With huge enrolments of students, there will always be motivated and intelligent people who will master the basics and be attractive to employers. But this is too often in spite of rather than because of the education they are receiving.

Similarly there are many dedicated and hard-working journalism educators who are marking hundreds of assignments a week and preparing many more classes than their colleagues in other disciplines.

Any objective assessor of university education in journalism can only offer the following report: “Can do much better. Started off very keen but has lost direction. Not working nearly hard enough on the core areas. Distracted by other children in nearby classes.

“Also at times the victim of bullies in the headmaster’s office. Parents could show more interest. Final grade: F.”

Professor John Henningham is the director of JSchool, a private journalism college based in Brisbane. This article is edited from an address to PANPA 2003.

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