Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: What ails our communication education

03 Aug,2018

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah


The Indian media and entertainment industry is growing by leaps and bounds—the annual FICCI-EY report this year estimates that the $22.75 billion industry (2017) grew by 18.55% since 2011. Although it is beginning to stabilise to around 12%, it will still be an impressive $37.5 billion industry by 2021. Television leads, but in terms of growth, predictably, the digital segment is growing the fastest. Growing at 26%, digital already enjoys 10% of the advertising expenditure. According to independent estimates, there are about 1,300 colleges in India offering media courses. Well over 50,000 students with media and communication degrees graduate in an average year in India. Employment issues in the industry are compounded by the fact that notwithstanding its high growth, much of the film and television industry relies on independent crew, and a large proportion of employment in production houses is project-based. It is therefore the strategy jobs in the M&E industry that are mostly available to media graduates.

On their part, independent colleges have the leeway to develop, seek approval and deliver curricula that they believe is better than the “model” curricula recommended by the University Grants Commission (UGC), the overarching regulatory body for much of our higher education system. There is a 30% leeway to operate with independent thought, and we can see how different universities have adopted subjects with nomenclatures that seem different on the surface. But arguably, it is the prescribed format and structure of the curricula that do the most damage, because many colleges do not venture beyond the UGC-mandated structures. Even when they do, it is debatable whether the results match industry expectations.The most well-oiled machines are in independent filmmaking courses. With the usual exceptions of a handful of specialised institutes, graduates do not prepare to enter the industry. They prepare to graduate.

WYSIWYG. Among aspirants, communication is one of the least understood disciplines, and predictably, this ignorance is far more pronounced in non-metros. (In metros, too, the understanding is incrementally more largely because of the exposure to the environment, not because the school system or any form of intervention creates any awareness.) The average applicant walks in seeking to “do something in” advertising or filmmaking.Because the media and entertainment (M&E) industries afford partial visibility, this parasocial exposure to what appears glamorous and attractive gladly occupies the aspirational mind.The results, too, are accidental. How many communication graduates can claim to have started and ended with the same focus?

Neither the partially visible nature of our communication industries nor entering communication education on a clean slate is a bad thing. Just the contrary. But in reality, the slate is hardly ever clean. The visible parts of our industries occupy the clean slate. In institutes I have been involved with, I make it a point to create an unlearning atmosphere at pre-admission and post-admission levels, and make efforts to help students do so before they start learning their disciplines. This helps students take the directionbest suited to their aspiration, aptitude and life goals. But in recent times, competitiveness among communication educators has created another business imperative of sorts. As colleges go corporate, with large marketing departments in place, counselling is less about creating awareness and choice, and more about convincing. Everything goes well when a student comes in with that tabula rasa. Because a large proportion of communication jobs are usually hardnosed strategy roles, and “getting a job” in the creative industries often entails financial risks, students and parents are often put off. After all, they came in search of a communication school exactly because they didn’t want a business degree. Isn’t communication a way to make money by using the art of free expression? They want to know. Further complicating these issues is the fact that working in these industries often does not mean creating anything—it entails managing and understanding creativity.

Wrong reasons. As the discipline matures, there is a slowly changing comprehension of what it takes—with the huge diversity in academic orientations ranging from the arts to statistics, creativity to business strategy. Students often choose their disciplines within communication because i) they want to enter a particular industry, whatever the role, or ii) the discipline seems familiar enough to grasp, or iii) they are clear what they want to do. The last of the three is a dream for a college, but that is because colleges themselves often do precious little to educate students what is at the other end of the journey. This means students choose with a certain amount of randomness. Being an educator should also mean helping students discover the intersections between natural inclinations, aspirations, and aptitudes.

Then there is the familiar matter of keeping up with industry trends. While there are principles, schools and concepts in all communication disciplines, anda good communication college often does a fair job of grounding students in them, the curricula continue to live in history. The problem is not with the curricula. As I mentioned in last week’s piece about media education, the problem is how we create repeated practice out of existing curricula.

This problem is usually more prominent in the more conventional disciplines such as film and advertising. With public relations, for example, the experience may be different. As a newer subject, it affords nimblefootedness in approach simply because of a drawback—not enough traditional literature exists. With advertising, students go through the usual motions of learning the features of copywriting. The strategic practice of copywriting remains obscure, because it is seemingly too much driven by individual talent.

Digital communication—education hasn’t caught up. Among all the gaping gaps we see in communication education, though, is the chasm between the emergence of digitisation of practice and its learning at college levels. Take, for example, satellite-based distribution systems of creative products and the emergence of film marketing. Only a couple of colleges with roots in the industry have even paid attention to these new trends. The practice of digital communication has taken a quantum leap, attracting fresh talent like a black hole. But few students are systematically prepared for the digital industries, entailing the art, science and commerce of storytelling, content creation and the strategies to market and distribute them. For the PR industry, this brings in a whole new function of content aggregation beyond the traditional media functions.

As much as digital communication is the medium of the youth, recruiters continue to be disappointed at the numbers and quality of graduating students who are experts at digital communication (notwithstanding a handful of good institutes teaching digital marketing). The larger picture with the frenetic growth of digitisation and of digital media platforms is that it has been creating new ecosystems. I have, somewhat in a Marshall McLuhan-esque way, regarded the digital as a new paradigm, not merely a new medium. Digitisation surrounds us through its three new dimensions: New tools (mobile, computer-based) and technology, revised concepts and ideologies, and an increasing role of digital professionals in professions and societies.

Digital media literacy itself is a huge opportunity that ironically remains undisturbed among academic circles. Digitisation has added a research and analysis dimension to our practice, but again, it is largely being ignored at preparatory levels.Storytelling and (and through) gamification are potential specialisations within media colleges, being new forms that will occupy a big space in Indian mediated communication. The low-cost advantage to digital should have also sounded the opportunity bugle for digital entrepreneurship as part of the curricula. (Fewer communication students than ever before in my experience are interested in entering the workforce through day jobs.)The “new media” course among colleges does not do justice to the rapid evolution of digital as a new ecosystem. We badly need a digital-first approach specifically training students in digital communication practice.

Digital media vs digital ecosystem. Learning digital media is never going to be enough unless understanding digital practice is embedded while learning any media-related practice.Many media colleges claim to cover much of what is needed. The important difference, though, is for how long and with how much focus do students absorb these subjects? A guest lecture or even a daylong workshop in gamification ain’tgonna cut it. It is even possible to embed many of these subjects within the existing curricular structure. I argue that all this is not the root cause of the mismatch between a student’s learning and her practice upon entering an industry. UGC mandates a large number of subjects, regardless of which discipline within communication you are specialising in. It does not pay enough attention to strategy and business—perhaps because the regulator does not see the practice of communication as a strategic-enough science. There is an array of diverse subjects that are great for general learning, but in a time-limited programme, some are redundant. Students themselves recognise the impracticality of some input. But in the end, it is all about how a college and its faculty approach specific subjects, what pedagogy they adopt, whether students get enough practice on ideas, technology, strategy and their tools. Believe it or not, communication skills—let alone writing—do not form a core part of a typical media student’s curriculum.

It is impossible to generalise the issues of communication education, as much as it is impossible to club the problems in the practice of all communication industries. Such is the vast diversity in M&E. That brings to a final point: We need a radical change in the way we approach communication education. A distinction between communication arts and communication strategy is the real difference. Calling it “Advertising”, for example, is misleading both in the way its practice hasgrown and in the fact that its practice entails many divisions with completely different aptitudes and approaches. Similarly, subjects are created with a focus on their marketability with aspiring students. Teaching the concepts and practice of advertising or corporate communication may not occupy more than a semester of weekly input. But taking the student through the understanding of various client industries, through practical application of communication strategy, and developing independent projects is important to effective learning. As in journalism, project- and practice-based learning has no substitute. But the key lies in repeated practice.

The industry is more active than before in participating in curricular delivery and sometimes in building syllabi. This is commendable, yet more embedding is needed because industry-trained faculty are far and few between. A recommendation I have been making since 2013 is that corporate social responsibility (CSR) must necessarily contribute to creating talent at colleges in their respective domains.MNCs are already building labs and imparting training in engineering and, lately, in journalism colleges. Surely more can be done in the digital, film, advertising, media research and PR industries in alignment with the Companies Act’s CSR clause?

In conclusion, it must be noted that more corporations than ever before are hiring communication graduates, as are the best advertising agencies. That trend is a good acknowledgment of more acceptable communication education.

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 communication education”

  1. Ashok Kumar Sharma says:

    Wonderfully crafted article. I’m sharing it everywhere.