Getting more out of Africa's media education

At Ibadan Polytechnic in Nigeria, Jonathan Adejunmobi has a hard job teaching journalism. For a start, there’s not even water to flush the toilets. Then, the school he heads has only a pair of ancient computers, and the electricity supply is more off than on.

In such conditions, how do his students go on to become journalists for Nigeria’s vibrant media? The answer is that they learn by writing stories by hand, and they publish by posting on a pinboard.

At Lagos State Polytechnic, the problem is gangsterism in the student body. Yet there’s an alternative for journalism students there: they are given access to drums and guitars, and the result is a catchy cultural troupe that teaches teamwork as a by-product.

In Uganda, students at Makerere University’s journalism programme can’t always afford a newspaper. But they access media content via the campus internet—and run their own online paper as well.

The three African institutions are symbols of achievement against the kind of odds that face the estimated 200 journalism schools around the continent.

Almost 90% of these facilities have not the slightest presence on the internet, and most operate in isolation of each other. But basic data on 96 of them has now been recorded in a database that grew out of a study I helped with recently.

Initiated last year by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), the point of the project was to map as far as possible who’s who in the business of educating and training Africa’s mass communicators.

A second leg to the exercise was to identify which of the continent’s journalism schools had the potential to become “centres of excellence”. This quest saw people from 30 institutions debate what features should count towards such a status. The issues, recorded online, were:

  • Purpose: Some teachers said the key measure was whether a facility adequately met the hiring needs of the media; others said it was more important that a school criticised problems in the industry. There were those arguing that positive ratings by students themselves were most fundamental.

  • Politics: One suggestion was that excellent African journalism teachers would be promoting democracy in their courses. The counter-argument came from Tunisia that this was outside the purview and power of a journalism school.

  • Africa-relevant: While many journalism teachers agreed that excellent African journalism courses would include reporting on HIV/Aids, others said this was too specific. Another set of voices said the best African programmes should require journalism students to learn other languages.
In the end, it was decided that while top journalism schools should serve the media, they would not be servants as such. A further point was that excellence meant understanding a society’s social problems in whatever form.

The debate led to a checklist of 42 points for assessing a given school. These indicators for excellence in African journalism education are grouped in three broad areas:

  • internal features (the quality of curriculum, technology, teachers and so forth);

  • external linkages (relations with the media industry, support for press freedom); and

  • momentum (plans, partners, sustainability).
In addition, what also counted in this project was whether a school fired on three pistons. That is, whether the facility had an impact on (a) entry-level journalists, (b) already employed reporters and (c) on the wider public and media environment.

This wide-ranging approach to identifying potential excellence reflected awareness of the need for maximum effect in Africa.

Once the package of yardsticks was agreed, 34 African journalism schools volunteered their detailed information in a bid to be rated. Eventually, 12 were recommended to Unesco as potential centres of excellence. Another nine with pockets of good performance were proposed as “centres of reference”.

In judging the contestants in South Africa (where I recused myself), the project listed Rhodes, Stellenbosch, Tshwane and Walter Sisulu universities as potential centres of excellence.

These bodies, and every other African journalism school, argue that more resources would enable them to do a better job. Those on the Unesco list hope their newly named status will lead to this kind of support as recommended in the final report to Unesco.

At minimum, one outcome of the project is the possibility of new networking among the listed schools. There’s a chance, for example, that Makerere and Rhodes could share experiences, Lagos State Polytechnic might set up ties with Tshwane, and so forth.

All kinds of benefits could emerge from such linkages—such as joint courses, use of external examiners, integrated research and common textbook development.

Results like that would be as well, because it’s not at all clear if indeed any new resources will flow to Africa’s journalism schools in the wake of the Unesco study.

In the meantime, what Jonathan Adejunmobi and others show is that teaching tomorrow’s journalists can happen even in the absence of resources. Networking to share their stories can help build an inspired community of African journalism teachers.

In turn, that could get more mileage out of Africa’s engines of media education. No one could disagree with that.

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