The University of Western Australia offered the first journalism education classes in Australia in 1919. At that time, journalism was an occupation of low repute, uneven talents and ill-defined prospects. Today, journalism is a respected and powerful profession, and many young Australians see journalism education as the gateway to an attractive career—despite recent press industry contraction and job cuts. Each year, more than 4500 students enrol in the undergraduate and postgraduate journalism degree programs offered at 30 universities and three private colleges.
While professional skills training is now a core curriculum offering, journalism educators remain committed to the initial mission of a broad liberal education for journalists, and adopt a variety of pedagogical approaches to instil in graduates independent perspectives on society and their chosen profession. This combination of critical vision and know-how, although not always highly prized by employers, means that tertiary-educated journalists are well placed to add value to journalism by improving news quality, ethical practice and thus public trust in news media.
The Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA) (later the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance), a pioneering white-collar trade union established in 1910, was the first and strongest advocate of tertiary education as a means to improve the status of journalists. An earlier bid by the short-lived Australian Institute of Journalists, formed in 1892, sought to regulate entry to journalism via the testing and registration of qualified reporters but failed because newspaper proprietors ignored it. Clem Lloyd, author of Profession: Journalist (1985), suggests some proprietors were more accepting of the AJA’s strategy of journalism diplomas from established universities—especially from 1921, once programs were introduced at the universities of Queensland, Melbourne, Western Australia, and Sydney. Even so, working journalists often saw little practical benefit in such courses, and a 1938 assessment of academic performance found only 25 journalism diplomas had been awarded in Australia.
The University of Queensland (UQ) became the leading national provider of US-style professional education after it redesigned its diploma in 1935 to include journalism training, cadet enrolments and guest lectures from working journalists. It introduced the first journalism major in a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1971, and appointed Professor John Henningham to the first chair of journalism in an Australian university in 1989.
During the inter-war years, the ratio of women to men in university courses was higher than in newspaper offices; it is likely that women viewed tertiary education as a means of entry into the male-dominated newspaper industry, since they were largely barred from the conventional training ground of cadetships. Although enrolling in or graduating from the course did not ensure a journalistic job, historian Paula Hamilton concluded that Australian women journalists were generally better educated than their male colleagues.
In 1975, what became the Journalism Education Association of Australia (JEAA) was formed. In 1987, the Hawke Labor government introduced higher education policy reforms that dramatically increased tertiary enrolments, and ‘vocationally relevant’ curricula. By 2001, media and communication studies had become a major area of study. Journalism was one of the field’s most attractive specialisations, partly due to unrealistic perceptions of the celebrity status and high salaries to be found in journalism.
Journalism degree nomenclatures, structures and contents vary widely across the university sector. Undergraduate journalism students now typically study units covering the history, sociology, cultures or politics of journalism, as well as news writing, editing and media law, and various disciplines ranging from politics and economics to justice studies. Fostering ethical practice is a shared ambition across all journalism programs. Pedagogy varies widely, from newsroom-style teaching and mentoring to educational models that focus on problem-solving, reflective practice or critical investigative and analytical skills. The US-style professional education model has declined in prominence and interest in formal accreditation of journalism programs has also waned.
For many editors, journalism education is seen as theory-laden and out of touch with industry realities, even when lecturers are former journalists. The news industry accepts journalism degrees as a matter of convenience rather than conviction: they represent a convenient way of filtering job applicants and inducting journalism graduates costs less than the old three-year cadet training system. Moreover, Australian journalists’ salaries and promotions are based on work performance and seniority, not educational qualifications, and the newsroom is still viewed by some as the best place to learn journalism. Conversely, some media scholars criticise journalism education’s curricula bias towards professional skills. In response, journalism educators point to the many pathways between education and the profession. In this view, public trust in journalism is linked to media pluralism and news diversity.
While the most ambitious journalism graduates still compete for jobs in the three major newspaper companies (News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media and Seven West Media) and other ‘Big Media’, a 2012 study of job expectations found a majority of journalism students prefer to work in entertainment-focused journalism. Journalistic work is evolving and diversifying, with particularly strong growth in small to medium-sized magazines and other media outlets in the digital domain.
Digital journalism has opened up a new debate about the strengths and weaknesses of Australian journalism education. The main concern is whether universities are producing enough of the right kind of graduates to address the current shortage of digital media skills in the major newsrooms and other media outlets. A 2009 study found young journalists in online newsrooms struggle to master new technologies and meet deadlines. The implication is that universities are failing to keep pace with technological innovations in industry, or to suitably redesign curricula to provide journalism graduates not only with the right ‘mindset’ but also with cutting-edge skills that will enable them to adapt the craft to the demands of online and mobile news delivery. Yet journalism research indicates that there is another side to the story. In fact, media companies have failed to invest in innovative journalism practice, preferring instead to limit in-house training to content-management system software, and to recruit digital-savvy young people to produce online news. Newsroom staff are often left to learn digital media tools and techniques outside working hours, with union-organised digital media training or university-run short courses in digital journalism the most accessible options.
‘Standards’ is the catchphrase that will shape journalism education in the coming years as government regulation now stipulates higher education providers must ensure that all graduates achieve measurable learning outcomes. The JEAA hosts a trans-disciplinary network of scholars—created by the late Associate Professor Anne Dunn at the University of Sydney—that is currently developing agreed minimum standards for undergraduate degree programs in journalism and cognate disciplines. The task is complex: diverse university settings and pedagogical approaches make it hard for journalism educators to reach consensus on the optimal curriculum or graduate attributes; disparities in students’ prior learning, coupled with widespread misperceptions of degree offerings, make it hard for students to always see the relevance of standardised learning outcomes; and ongoing industry volatility makes it hard for graduates to identify the most likely labour market for their qualifications.
In this context, collaborative industry–university links—internship programs, sessional teaching by industry experts and new digital-driven degrees in ‘future journalism’—have been identified as the key to developing stronger graduate outcomes. Thus there is tacit recognition by all parties that journalism education plays an important role in providing journalism students—as key stakeholders in the future of journalism—with the knowledge and skills to reinvent the craft for the next generation.
REFs: R. Kirkpatrick, ‘Diploma to Degree: 75 Years of Tertiary Journalism Studies’, Australian Studies in Journalism, 5 (1996); P. O’Donnell, ‘Journalism Students and Intergenerational Change in Journalism’, Australian Journalism Review, 28(1) (2006); P. Putnis et al., Communication and Media Studies in Australian Universities (2002).