Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: What ails our news media education

23 Jul,2018


By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

The government’s decision last month to scrap the University Grants Commission (UGC) will not change much on the ground for the quality of media education. Each field has its own imperatives, and education in journalism needs an approach that cannot be a part of an overarching structure and format. Neither the popular success of our news media nor the perceived failure of our media education system is a true indicator of quality. To the snooty intellectual, the industry is not good enough a measure of quality. But in my experience, that is simply not true. Even with the business imperatives, it is possible for meaningful journalism to flourish, so rejecting our most critical stakeholder will not help the cause of good education. I have had the privilege of framing, revamping and restructuring media curricula in my tenure, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, so I believe I owe myself the introspection I am about to make.

In all the three categories of endeavours, I have operated with a troubling feeling that somehow we are accidental media educators—our products are largely a result of individual students’ backgrounds and doggedness. In each graduating class, a small percentage ‘makes it’, another group manages to find employment, yet another set of aspiring journalismstudents is pushed into the industry through clever marketing and by leveraging institutional credibility.

Yet, that is not really what impresses the external stakeholder community. Rather, the industry is most worried about disappointing—declining, even—output standards. Many of our administrators are originally professors and not business executives. So it is beyond comprehension why more of us are not more troubled by lack of quality in our products. I hold this lack of concern on top of my list of why our media schools’ output is far less than desirable.

Dealing with student diversity. Students’ differing educational and social backgrounds make up the biggest challenge in today’s higher education system, and is particularly challenging when it comes to fields like ours where expression abilities are critical. Regrettably, this challenge has become a sort of a cross to bear—an unavoidable trade-off to achieve business imperatives, to be tolerated and pushed through. This is why, having taken on the challenge of accepting students with varying social strata and educational backgrounds, our media educators largely fail to transform them into deliverable professionals or scholars—the very qualitative goals that an educational system should aspire for. Rather than blame the iniquities for poor output, such inclusiveness of student backgrounds should delight colleges themselves because of the opportunity it provides. Even government systems are doing it, if the Delhi school system’s recent success is anything to go by. So it should be possible for a college to take advantage of the diversity, even design specialised learning systems around it. Higher education in media can go farther by diversification of curricula and include more field projects that encompass diverse social, educational and geographic backgrounds of students.

Overcoming a template approach. Secondly, the UGC curriculum in journalism leaves much to be desired, so affiliated undergraduate and even postgraduate colleges are left languishing. The mandated 148 credit hours to achieve each year at the undergraduate level (one credit hour gets halved when it is practical or workshop input—so much for motivation!) translate to approximately 3.5 hours of classroom input per working day (six days a week). With assignments, this is heavy load at the college level, where independent work should be emphasised. Colleges must then compromise the non-mandated time to squeeze in non-mandated input—which, surprisingly, includes internships and field work. This one-shape-fits-all approach simply cannot work for media education. Journalism and related media studies must be heavy on individual learning in simulated practice and on the field. Even within the existing structures, it is possible to instil depth of learning through the rigour of practice. That is, long hours of classes make far less sense than long hours of guided and independent practice.This requires flexibility at college levels and devoted guidance that unpacks diverse, quality and tangible output.

Rote vs repetition. Of course, it is not all about processes. But repetition of processes alone provides experience, understanding and maturity. It is not enough, for example, to devote a semester to producing one issue of a magazine. Unless students continue to produce issue after issue for years, their learning will remain incomplete. Repetition also enables assessment to record learning over time, rather than the snapshot method that examinations and one-time performance will evaluate. Colleges that already practise this method have surely seen the growth in their students’ output. The converse of this method is the infamous rote method, where students habitually memorise for a one-time performance. Colleges and students—and regulators—routinely encourage this method, and to me it seems a cynical exercise. All of us in the education sector are aware of the immediacy problem with rote—that most information memorised for short-term returns is stored in short-term memory. Yet it is the most popular method. This must mean that we don’t really believe our education transforms a student into a professional: Good marketing does.

The concepts-practice trick. By and large, our media education curricula do get the conceptual foundations right. However, clearly we have not moved with the times. Digital medium should be seen as a paradigm shift in media practice. Yet our education system dwells too heavily in the past to be able to come out of it. The other extreme would be to go so far into the current practice realm that journalism students walk and talk like toolsy apprentices of a machine works plant, with little conceptual grasp of the enduring and changing philosophies, roles, responsibilities of the media. Neither of these extremes is acceptable to the practice of the media—only a well-grounded but practical mix of the two will work. And this is why a flexible model including concepts-practical-field-repetition-diverse model will work, where any margins of error may truly be beyond the control of the college.

For example, news writing is not a core part of curricula across our systems. Sure, it may form modules within courses, but ask any media practitioner in India, and you will hear the lamentation about the biggest problem among today’s graduating classes—the lack of expression skills. But it is not expression skills that students lack. They lack the systematic direction and guidance and putting them to use. From constructing thought to constructing sentences and building stories, writing and speaking effectively are the two skills that can indeed be developed far, far more effectively than it is currently. Add to that understanding of the various worlds around, from the neighbourhood to the geopolitical, from entrepreneurship to the stock markets, and so on. And you have a potent mix. But, as I said before, repeated practice is key.

Caught in the conundrum of perceived correctness and real practicality, educators often end up bemoaning the systems that they are not a part of—leaving graduating students at the mercy of good branding, clever marketing, influential parents, and the student’s individual chutzpah.

The business of education. College after college displays a gaping chasm between the confidence of the administration and an on-ground reality. Infrastructure, industry contacts, guest faculty—everything surrounding the core seems to excite us. When administrators at typical private institutes do seem troubled, it is almost invariably about enrolment numbers. How do we attract more students, they seek to understand. The enrolment numbers are the carrot before the funding horse—higher numbers means better equipment, infrastructure, a fresh coat of paint for the college. Since most of ouradministrative heads are teachers taking on business positions, this anxiety is understandable. It is reinforced by managements, many of whose decisions do not consider the entire product cycle. Administrators often speak the language of the promoters because growth in numbers and business is their hardest burden to bear. Indeed, spurt numbers through enrolment-marketing is seen as the hallmark of achievement. I argue that the best growth in numbers happens organically and by word of mouth.

Fostering independent work. A factor of this business approach manifests itself in the way we quantify check boxes. Administrations offer satisfaction at the numerous guests from the industry (including Bollywood stars!) who have graced their campus, claiming that the industry-academia connect is accomplished. Only in infrequent cases does the industry participate in integral ways—setting up training news labs on campuses (perhaps under CSR initiatives), providing well-structured internships, providing guided training on an ongoing basis. Of course, these are also factors of location—if you are located in Noida or Mumbai or other big media hubs, there is a better chance the student is better exposed to the industry.With the predominantly classroom-and-lab style of learning they receive, students of journalism and allied subjects suffer from disconnect with the practice. True, teachers who are both aligned with the industry and solid in foundational concepts are hard to find. But teachers at this level are largely triggers and facilitators, and can go a long way in fashioning increasingly independent student work.

The measurement of success of education is often disputed. There is a need to align student expectations with institutional goals for the student—which, usually, is gainful employment without compromising on the principles of practice. A revamped regulator needs to go much farther in the direction of structural changes, but most of all, it must permit media education to develop time and space for its unique concepts and practice, rather than depend on one set by some umbrella structure.

Part 2 of this article – on media education outside of news media – will appear next week


Shashidhar Nanjundaiah has led leading media institutes in India, as  Director of Symbiosis Institute of Media & Communication, founding Director of Indira School of Communication, and first Dean of India Today Media Institute. He pioneered research on the socio-economics of a newly liberalised Indian media marketplace. Currently, he observes how India’s media industry is shaping itself in this decade. He has also edited newspapers and magazines in India and the US. The views here are his own.



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2 responses to “Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: What ails our news media education”

  1. SATISH PANDE says:

    Excellent analysis, in my opinion the problem is in two parts first a very few students joining a mass communication course are well read. What I mean by well read is they have not read on various subjects giving them basic idea about the world and how it functions. Reading only classics in literature is not sufficient that may make one a better writer but not an analyst or a professional in mass communication. Which results in lak of in-depth understanding and analysing a concept. This is fault of our schools not mass communication institutes. Secondly the role of journalist in the society is not clear to students, this is totally the failure of the institutes. They fail to provideb ethical, and moral foundation to the character of would be journalist.

    • Shashidhar says:

      That second point is very pertinent! Are we explaining the role of the journalist well enough?

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