5:54am , Wednesday 20th January 2021

Journalism Graduates Lack Practical Skills and Professional Tools

6 November 2013

Criteria for Student Enrollment and Teacher Recruitment Weakens the Curricula at Media Schools.

Al-Ghad – Najeh al-Shemali did not expect to spend 14 years without a job after graduating from the Faculty of Media at Yarmouk University. During his long years of education, he counted the days and nights after which he would embark upon a career as an “important journalist.”

Having to pay for his own studies meant that Shemali incurred numerous expenses. Upon graduating, he immediately began looking for work in his desired field. However, this is where he faced his first shock.

“The selectivity of newspapers and my lack of sufficient skills prevented me from getting a job in my specialization. I could not cover the cost of education either. So I fell into depression,” Shemali laments. “I had to work in insurance for 10 years, until I got a job in public relations for the water authorities in 2009, through the [Civil] Service Bureau. I wrote press statements, but under the administrative title of specialized researcher.”

Shemali is like dozens of graduates from media faculties and departments at Jordan’s universities. They face a dearth of jobs and criticism for the lack of practical skills obtained during their education.

Suffering Begins After Graduation

The suffering of media students begins shortly after graduation, when they discover that their profession is not listed with the Civil Service Bureau (in charge of public sector appointments). Resorting to the journalists union, they are confronted with membership criteria that include a minimum of two years of experience in print publication. This condition is unique, since it is not imposed by other professional unions, like the syndicates for engineers and doctors. In the private sector, graduates will discover that their education doesn’t measure up to the requirements of the job market either. There is a significant divergence between the curricula and education received at university, on the one hand, and the demands of the profession in the new millennium on the other.

Jordan has 12 public universities, of which only Yarmouk University offers a degree in journalism and media. There are also twenty private universities, four of which offer this specialization: Petra University, Middle East University, Jadra University, and al-Zarqa Community College. A combined number of approximately 600 media students are enrolled in these programs.

However, the selection criteria for instructors in journalism departments tend to focus on academic credentials – a PhD from any university – without consideration for practical experience. Compounded by the criteria for selecting students, this leads to a decline in the standard of graduates, who also lack contemporary and advanced journalistic skills which prevents them from being engaged in the job market. The author of this report discovered that at most universities, a practical component does not exceed 2 percent of the curriculum, while international averages exceed 50 percent.

Low Standards for Student Enrollment

The problem with journalism and media specializations begin with the student selection criteria. According to the Bureau for Higher Education (tasked with regulating university education in Jordan), grades are the only criteria for student selection, without regard to talent, drive, or ability to pursue this specialization.

Mohamed al-Mohtaseb, a lecturer at the Faculty of Journalism and Media at Yarmouk University, adds another factor. He says that some students are accepted “through quotas for special seats. Their grades in high school are low and they do not have the language skills or potential for this profession.”

The minimum accepted grade average for Yarmouk’s journalism faculty is 70 percent, which decreases to 60 percent for private universities, according to Dr. Taysir Abu Arja, head of the journalism department at Petra University, and Khaled Abdul-Wahab, director of admissions and registration at Zarqa.

Pre-enrollment exams are not a criteria for journalism students, whether at Yarmouk or at other public universities.

An Experiment that was not being Repeated

Khaled Hazaimeh, media registrar at Yarmouk University, explains that this system was adopted for a single incoming class in 2008-2009. However, it stopped, “since university officials at the time were convinced that such tests do not demonstrate a student’s journalistic abilities and skills.”

Through a decision (No.164) by the higher education council, applications for that year were sent directly to the department, which set an aptitude test.

University lecturers who witnessed that period maintain to al-Ghad that only around 120 students took the exam. However, the faculty enrolls 150 students every academic year, based on a high school average of 70 percent. The instructors indicated that the writing exam was “routine” and everyone was able to pass. This was in light of low enrollment rates in the faculty, due to high fees (set by the higher education council at JD35 per hour of instruction, and JD60 for those with lower grades than the minimum for admission).

In light of this, lecturers requested that the higher education council reconsider the criteria for direct admission to the faculty, handing it to the joint admissions committee, as the minimum requirement used to be an 80 percent grade average in high school.

However, the Ministry of Higher Education has decided it will now reconsider the decision to cancel the aptitude test, according to Higher Education Council Secretary Shadi Masaadeh. “The higher education ministry is considering a proposal to amend the Jordanian university law, which includes this exam and other recommendations,” he says. “It will be presented to the next parliament.”

In October 2012, the head of the journalism and media department at Petra University recommended an exam to test students’ cultural and language aptitude prior to enrollment.

However, the modification of certain standards, such as raising the grades required at the baccalaureate level, might result in alienating some students, according to one employee in the admissions office at a private university who prefers to remain anonymous. “Some students choose this specialization to pass time, without caring if they desire it or not, which prevents [us from] raising the admissions grades for this,” she warns. “Students will start avoiding it, reducing the number of people enrolled and we might be forced to cancel the program.”

Poor Practical Training

To avoid making grades the final criteria for success or progress for all educational levels, university and department administrations tend to create plans for their departments, which set the form and type of subjects on offer, in addition to the number of hours required for theoretical and practical instruction.

The author of this report reviewed curricula, including theoretical and practical courses, for five universities that offer journalism and media degrees (four private and one public institution). Only one of these universities offer a new media course; three of them teach “journalism and electronic media,” while only two universities run courses on investigative journalism.

The number of practical courses is much lower than theoretical subjects such as media theory, political communications, and introduction to communications.

Students complain that courses are taught in a theoretical manner and that the large number of students prevents practical follow-up, especially on group projects. In addition, the courses offered are often not up to date and use relatively old source materials.

The curriculum for the journalism department at Yarmouk University includes 132 required hours. Of those, only six hours are allocated toward mandatory practical/field work. Petra requires 135 total hours, with only 3 dedicated to practical/field work. At Middle East and Jadra Universities, it is only 3 out of 132. Graduation projects at all of the above institutions are only allotted three required hours.

Universities implement practical requirements through agreements with local media organizations, whereby students are sent for training on the news desk. However, universities such as Yarmouk suffer from a lack of cooperation with media organizations, which either accept them only in small numbers or are not serious about providing them with skills and the required practical experience. This was maintained by several students during the course of the investigation.

Hiba al-Sarabi, a journalism student at Yarmouk University, believes that her training time at a daily newspaper was inadequate. Her work was limited to uploading news to the newspaper’s website, without being assigned to the field.

Usama Khreisha, who graduated in journalism from Yarmouk in 2008, had to personally pursue training at newspapers to learn the tricks of the trade. “The equipment at the university was old,” he explains. “Lectures were based on memorizing stiff theories about media and such. This had nothing to do with teaching skills for the job market.”

Mohamed al-Ersan, the editor of Sawt al-Balad radio, which is run by the Community Media Network, asks: “What use do I have for a student who can explain bullet theory, but is unable to edit a news item?”

“Students are weak in the basics of the profession, like writing styles and the Arabic language,” he adds. “They are also weak in knowing how to create public relations networks with sources, in the street or among officials.”

Yehia Shoukair, media trainer and an expert on freedom of publication and the press at al-Arab al-Yawm, believes that the weak practical experience of professors is also to blame for the lack of skills passed on to students. “Everyone knows that journalism training is different than university education. Many who teach education in universities do not know how to write a news item. This is not necessarily a defect, but how can they teach something they do not know? This is why the training fails,” he explains.

Rare Exception

Shoukair has a Bachelor’s degree in journalism and media from Yarmouk University and has more than 25 years of experience in the field, in addition to being a lecturer at several US universities.

Despite not having a graduate degree, he was able to join the journalism department at Middle East University, where he teaches translation and media skills in English. However, this is a rare exception afforded to those with more than five years of experience in a specialization, permitting them to teach certain undergraduate courses.

However, this exception is rarely made on the ground. A review of 25 resumes of 55 lecturers at three out of the five universities – one public and two private – revealed that they all hold postgraduate degrees (8 Master’s and 17 PhDs).

The Ministry of Higher Education believes that the decision should be made by individual universities, since it already exists on paper and since there are no legal obstacles to its implementation.

While the resumes of most of the surveyed lecturers showed professional track records ranging between five and ten years, their experience appears to be outdated, going back as far as the 1980s in some cases. This is a clear indication that those instructors have not been professionally active as journalists since at least the early 1990s, in addition to lacking experience in contemporary journalism and new media. Also academic research was absent. Associate professors, for example, are required to have published at least one valuable study in a reviewed journal after receiving their degrees. This work should also be up to the standards and conditions for a job promotion.

However, none of the surveyed professors are associates of international media organizations. One of them is a member of Kappa Tau Alpha, a US college honor society for journalism students, and another, an Arab national who used to head a human rights organization, is a member of the International Federation of Journalists as well as the Arab American Association.

Appointment criteria for journalism departments are listed in the regulations and bylaws for higher education and stipulate that teachers should at least have a master’s degree.

However, some universities’ internal regulations permit the appointment of holders of bachelor’s degrees as full-time lecturers, if they have the necessary experience.

According to Dr. Kabalan al-Majali, assistant president of accreditation at the Ministry of Higher Education, instructors who hold bachelor’s degree in a specialization could be appointed as practicing lecturers at universities, but should not exceed 10 percent of the full-time staff.

As for the lack of experience of some university teachers and the impact on educational achievements, “there are general selection criteria set for appointments at university departments and colleges in the US, which are based on professional and theoretical dimensions,” explains Dr. Bassem Touaisi, director of the Hussein Bin Talal University Research Center and the Media Studies Center, as well as a professor of media and development. “In addition, promotion criteria depend on the teacher’s professional engagement while teaching. Coming from a journalism background is not sufficient – there should also be professional engagement, such as producing documentaries, regular articles in newspapers, or supervising journalistic investigations. This is applied in Italy and at several universities in Western Europe. However, nothing like this exists in Jordan, where the promotion of teaching staff in journalism and media is merely based on theoretical academic research.”

As for the possible advantage of employing experts who do not hold postgraduate degrees, Touaisi says “the field is relatively open for those with experience, but to a reasonable degree. They should not overwhelm the other criteria of higher education and are allowed to teach no more than one or two subjects.”

Some universities, like Yarmouk, are contracting experts who do not hold a master’s degree as lecturers, according to its journalism registrar Khaled Hazaimeh.

The director of admissions and registration at Zarqa also maintains that it is possible to hire instructors with a high level of suitable experience. However, this is only for technical subjects, studios, and labs, but not to lecture.

After Graduation: Initial Shock

Journalism graduates in Jordan are surprised by their inability to join the union, since members are required to have prior experience either at a public institution (press agency, radio, or television) or an independent print publication. This is indicated through a social security number and is required for a period of no less than two years, according to Article 83/2003 of the union’s regulations.

There are currently 1020 full-time practicing journalists registered in the union, according to its president Tareq al-Moumni. However, this does not represent the bulk of media workers. The union’s criteria leaves out workers in the audiovisual and electronic media sector, at a time when the number of broadcasters in the country exceeds 27 establishments, in addition to more than 530 news websites.

Furthermore, the union’s statistics do not indicate if members are still practicing, especially those who registered 20 years ago or even earlier, nor the number of members with journalism and media degrees or their proportion to those with other degrees.

Union president Moumni maintains that the union council proposed an amendment to its law, allowing employees at radio stations, private satellite channels and websites to join the union according to special criteria. They are still awaiting the proposal’s passage from the government to the new parliament.

This would create a situation similar to the one in Egypt, where Law No.76 of 1970 concerning eligibility in the journalists union stipulates: An applicant journalist shall hereby be deemed and classed as ‘employed’ […] [when they] engage in a regular paid employment in the field of journalism, whether in a daily or a periodical newspaper published in Egypt, or otherwise, in a domestic or foreign news agencies operating in Egypt, for which the respective journalists shall receive a regular and fixed remuneration, and provided that they shall not engage in another trade or profession.”

Union membership criteria in Iraq stipulate that applications be accompanied by six to ten articles published in Iraqi newspapers or magazines, in addition to a guarantee of continued employment with a magazine, newspaper, or any other media organization approved by the union.

Graduates with Modest Skills

Examining three major media organizations operating in the country (Reuters, al-Jazeera’s desk, and al-Arabiya’s desk), the author of this investigative report discovered that they do not necessarily encourage the hiring of journalism graduates. Instead, these agencies require familiarity with media work, especially journalistic writing and deep knowledge of issues, such as economy and politics. They all indicated that applicants should be smart and have good journalistic instincts, which is always to be found in graduates from Jordanian universities. Those graduating from foreign universities are only superior in their knowledge of the English language, editing skills, and the internal situation of the region where they will be assigned.

Two of the organizations prefer applicants fluent in English and all three of them require editing skills in both languages. Language proficiency, especially in Arabic, is also a requirement.

Knowing English seems to be one of the obstacles facing journalism graduates in Jordan who are looking to work in the field. Journalism curricula show that 90 percent of subjects are taught in Arabic. However, three of the five universities offering journalism degrees in the country do not offer courses in Arabic grammar.

This investigation was prepared under the supervision of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).


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