The real threat lurking in universities

Universities are under attack for 'indoctrinating' some students, but a much bigger problem is costing taxpayers, students and the nation dearly.

Years ago outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris, I asked a local what the large crowds of middle eastern men were doing milling about in the square outside.

“Politics,” was her reply. The men, she said, were arguing over political ideas and opinion, most likely related in some way to that most political of topics, religion.

For most Australians, however, politics is not face-to-face with lots of gesticulating. Mostly our opinion leaders, and their opponents, get into our heads via mass media or more recently via social media.

So when news emerged last week that university lecturers were ‘indoctrinating’ journalism students to hate some media outlets and gravitate towards others, alarm bells rang in the commentariat.

How could it be, asked some, that tax dollars were funding teachers to vilify some news publishers and valorise others?

And if the report was correct, was this a subversive act striking at the heart of liberal democracy -- brainwashing tomorrow’s journalists to favour one media giant over another, and presumably one side of politics over another? A generation of propagandists would be a big problem. 

There are, however, a number of reasons to be unafraid ... very unafraid.

The overwhelming reason is that the bulk of journalism graduates never work as journalists (and here I am not counting citizen journalists or unpaid bloggers). This columnist graduated from a nine-month course in Perth in 1994 and through considerable struggle found an unglamourous job on a UK magazine many months later.

That was hard enough, but since then the news media has shed jobs, year after year, while the numbers enrolled in ‘journalism’ or ‘media studies’ degrees has gone the other way -- they’re overflowingly popular.

I must disclose, too, that I have taught journalism at university on and off to classes of up to 300 students at a time, for a full seven years of my 20-year career.

Some students were a little upset when I pointed out early in each semester that there were very few jobs for journalists out there -- but there were tonnes of jobs that used the same skill-set, particularly in PR and other communications roles. Not sure that’s good for democracy, but it’s the way things are.

The best and brightest of, say, a 300-student intake, will take their ‘indoctrination’ and enter the fourth-estate profession. Most often they are, thankfully, the students most equipped to figure out how things really work outside the gentle routines of academia.

Moreover, and again thankfully, they will join ranks of journalists who have not been to university or who majored in another subject. For instance, this writer studied science first before swapping the lab coat for a business shirt.

The risk of an academic’s view of media markets ‘indoctrinating’ media practitioners to any degree is almost non-existent. Young journalists often argue with their jaded bosses over idealistic views of society, but each, with time, finds their own map of reality.

There is no better cure for youthful, numbers-free leftism than covering a corporate reporting season, a state budget or being forced to dissect ABS wages data.

And there is no better cure for theory-based rightism than interviewing criminals, drug addicts and the long-term unemployed -- as well as the police, social workers and charity workers who deal with them.

But back to the tax dollars being spent on indoctrinating the next generation of journalists, shouldn’t education minister Christopher Pyne do something about that?

Well yes and no.

Pyne is managing a transition from a capped-fee university system, to one in which the most prestigious institutions can raise fees to reflect demand.

However, he has committed to following Labor’s ‘demand-driven’ model of higher education, which means if there’s a ‘sexy’ degree such as ‘journalism’ taking 300 entrants per year, but with few jobs at the other end, or a less glamorous subject such as ‘actuarial studies,’ with fewer entrants but far more jobs at the other end, we should let the market decide.

Hmm. One of the key theoretical requirements for a free market is ‘perfect information,’ and 17-year-old uni entrants, and their parents who may never have been to university, don’t have that.

They are often mis-sold one of the most important products they’ll ever buy.

Sadly, the marketing process used by universities to fill up attractive-sounding degrees just does not foreground the likelihood of the future graduate finding work in their chosen field -- well, certainly not in journalism.

But that has not stopped journalism degrees becoming a boom industry.

Historically, a number of TAFEs offered journalism courses -- a role taken over in the early 1990s when news publishers agitated for the ‘professionalisation’ of their role and for universities to take over some of the training that publishers had traditionally provided themselves.

Although a couple of university-level journalism programs existed before that time, a profusion of programs sprang up in the years following the Dawkins funding reforms in 1989, as overall student numbers on campus began to swell (Misselling education to our own kids, May 28).

Yet the ‘discipline,’ such as it is, has been struggling to define itself for the intervening decades.

In a technical sense, journalists need writing, editing, video, audio and online skills, and these need topping up with at least a basic understanding of history, economics, politics, a smidgen of science … a bit of everything really.

One solution to that problem was to cobble together degrees using much better defined, and established disciplines -- British and American strains of cultural studies, media studies or communication studies provided the serious theory and research to turn a few courses in news writing into a degree.

The confusion in the current ‘indoctrination’ debate is failing to differentiate between the academic, research-focused teaching based on theorists such as Marshall ‘the-medium-is-the-message’ McLuhan, Raymond Williams or Stuart Hall, and the practical skills taught by overworked hacks such as yours-truly.

Universities love to blur the lines between the academic discipline that has been evolving since the 1950s and the skills-based training that is properly called ‘journalism’.

That allows them to recruit large numbers of students who expect to be running around campus with note-pads and cameras, who later discover that half their study time is spent digesting theorists such as Foucault or Lyotard, or even, heaven forbid, Marx.

And this is where the debate needs to be widened. There is scarcely a discipline on a modern university campus that has not been touched by the work of those thinkers (ok, I’ll exempt dentistry).

Foucault, for example, wrote extensively on how systems of scientific knowledge function, and is quoted not only in the humanities, but in the social sciences and pure/applied sciences as well.

During the heated debate on ‘indoctrination’, which has spilled over into nasty social media slanging matches, some suggested that journalism students would be better off studying law, economics or history.

Quite true. But has nobody noticed that an ‘activist’ class of liberal-minded legal professionals exists in Australia? They were trained in our universities.

Or that economic history requires an understanding of both Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes? Lecturers might dare to ‘indoctrinate’ students to believe that Kevin Rudd’s second Keynesian stimulus package was justified.

Or that self-identifying Marxists are paid to teach history or sociology? How could any young Australian resist such brainwashing!

Actually, the demand-driven system pushes hundreds of students into mega-courses that are probably a waste of their time and tax-payers’ money.

One social sciences lecturer told me a couple of years ago that her school had resorted to giving students tutorials only every second week in order to handle a 700-strong course.

The brainwashing of students, I would suggest, is far less dangerous than the mis-selling educational products to young Australians. It keeps them out of other kinds of work-based learning for three years, lumbers them with a HECS debt and releases them into a jobs market that doesn’t want them.

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