Academics say Malaysia’s journalism schools are producing mediocre graduates.

Some J-schools are adopting profit-driven models that teach students how to create advertorials and follow content templates.

By Susan Tam
Splice Malaysia
J-School Fail
Educational institutions teach students how to create advertorials and replicate templates used in writing reviews, gaming stories and travel stories. Graphic: Shutterstock/Illustration: Rishad Patel

Malaysian journalism schools are turning out low-quality graduates as market forces dictate courses that fail to impart high journalistic standards, according to academics in the field.

The country’s Higher Education Ministry determines the way universities shape their offerings, and in its latest policy paper said students must master the technological skills demanded by the industry.

In its Education Blueprint, the ministry also emphasised the need to create a system that places equal value on technical and vocational training instead of solely focusing on traditional academic pathways.

But professor Ahmad Murad Merican, a researcher at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, says he is dismayed to see commercial factors driving many Malaysian journalism schools to “cater to the market”.

“A university is a university, and a university cannot be an industry.  The onus of training in the job market should be the industry,” he says.

Early journalism courses devised from the early 1970s to the 1980s were based on Malaysia’s political conditions at the time. “The philosophy was that there is a need to introduce a journalism education to instil and inculcate the values of democracy,” Ahmad says.

However, since then, educational institutions have begun adopting for-profit models to offer market-ready courses that teach students how to create advertorials and replicate templates used in writing reviews, gaming stories and travel stories.  

Mass communication lecturer Natasha Hishamudin teaches a class at Malaysia's IACT College. Photo: Susan Tam.
Mass communication lecturer Natasha Hishamudin teaches a class at Malaysia's IACT College. Photo: Susan Tam.

“Colleges are looking at what can sell and this year’s economic slowdown has greatly influenced the way a school designs its curriculum.”

IACT College’s Natasha Hishamudin, a senior lecturer in mass communication, says private colleges don’t hide the fact that journalism courses are increasingly customised to meet market demand. “Colleges are looking at what can sell and this year’s economic slowdown has greatly influenced the way a school designs its curriculum,” she says.

She says IACT College has regular meetings with media industry representatives so syllabuses can be tailored to teach students “industry-ready” skills sought by the jobs market, often at the expense of imparting high journalistic standards.

Studies related to media have become popular and profitable that even a local hairdressing college, Snips College of Creative Arts, has begun offering mass communication courses.

In Malaysia there are nearly 200 public universities and colleges, and about 500 private institutions.

Data from official accreditation body Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) shows that there are 25 providers of journalism diploma and degree courses. More than 80 public and private additional institutions offer media studies or mass communication qualifications with a journalism elective.

Critical thinking and analytical techniques are also lacking in schools, according to both academics, possibly resulting in sub-standard journalism students. Poor reading habits and a lack of curiosity among graduates are other factors, according to Natasha.

MQA, which is part of the Higher Education Ministry, has reshaped journalism syllabuses so that up to 75% of these courses contain skills training.

Universiti Sains Malaysia professor Ahmad Murad Merican. Photo: Susan Tam.
Universiti Sains Malaysia professor Ahmad Murad Merican believes universities shouldn't morph into vocational training centers. Photo: Susan Tam.

Kuala Lumpur-based freelancer Khalil Majeed is recent graduate of Media, Culture and Communication from UK’s University of Sunderland, which was taught through IACT College. He says journalism was a throwaway course for many in his cohort, who are using their studies to get into areas such as corporate social mediaessentially marketing badly disguised as journalism.

“What we were taught is an amalgamation of all the bits that constitute media understanding, then rebranded to look like journalism,” he says.

“The ethics and codes don’t comply. Thus we come to the point that through this we get given a no-dissent, always-complacent structure where we have to be ‘creative’ with our work because that is what sells these days.”

Jacqueline Ann Surin, founder and editor of the now-defunct online site The Nut Graph, says the fact that her staff was largely foreign-trained was a key factor in producing quality journalism.

“[I]t was hard to find that training locally and those of us who had it brought those [journalistic] values into the newsroom,” she explains.

The Nut Graph offered deeper insights into news instead of competing with breaking news sites, but market forces led it to close in 2014 after six years—indicative of the pressures buffeting both publishers and journalists in Malaysia.

Private colleges don’t hide the fact that journalism courses are increasingly customised to meet market demand.

For schools to improve in the present environment, both Ahmad and Natasha suggest skills training should be balanced out by modules in other fields that will help students become capable of reasoned analysis.

“I think forensic science can help students improve their investigative skills, while law subjects helps them learn about governments so students understand why public interest is important to a journalist,” Natasha says.

Ahmad offers up a radical approach: set up an independent journalism school where the curriculum is unencumbered by the skills needed to enter professions such as advertising, broadcasting and public relations.

Susan Tam is a freelance journalist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has reported on global affairs for Al Jazeera English TV, as well as regional issues for the Singapore Press Holdings and The Star. Her freelance assignments have been for CNN International and Yahoo, and research for the UN offices in Malaysia. Susan specializes in social issues, policy developments and the retail sector. Follow Susan Tam on Twitter.

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