Earlier this year, I was invited as a panellist in an online forum discussing the future of newsroom and communication studies. The forum was important, considering that communication studies in Malaysia celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021, and is at a crossroads, where it needs to define its future.
Communication studies at the higher education level in Malaysia began in 1971 at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). The curriculum during its early days was mainly modelled after the American system, even though there was effort to embed the Rukun Negara principles into the programme, as told by Prof Dr John Lent, the first coordinator of the USM communication studies programme.
According to communication scholars such as Prof Datuk Seri Dr Syed Arabi Aidid and Prof Datuk Dr Ahmad Murad Merican, the American influence on our communication studies curriculum during the early period was enormous. This was expected considering the origin of the communication sciences, the progress in the field of development communication, and the height of the Cold War conflicts in the 1970s.
Fifty years on, without doubt, communication studies in Malaysia has grown by leaps and bounds and, to a large extent, contributed to the growth of the nation. Many of the communication studies graduates have become prominent media practitioners, government officers, professionals, entrepreneurs and scholars.
However, a more unpredictable and challenging future looms, requiring communication studies in Malaysia to rise, to remain relevant at the present and in the future. In this article, I highlight three issues which I think are crucial, requiring prompt attention.
The first relates to the issue of relevance. In the last few years, the relevancy of the communication studies and its graduates is often questioned. For instance, in 2019, the media reported the concern raised by Datuk A. Kadir Jasin, pertaining to graduate employability. The experienced newsman urged communication students to further their studies in other areas upon graduation to stand a better chance of getting employed.
In response to the graduate employability issue, it is necessary for the present communication studies curriculum to include knowledge and skills from outside the faculty. This can be done by encouraging students to take up compulsory elective courses from other faculties such as computer science, economy and management. A more liberal education approach can help students to broaden their knowledge beyond the communication discipline. In this age, graduates are expected to have knowledge and skills that transcend the boundaries. Those who are able to perform multiple tasks have the added value and competitive advantage over others.
The second issue revolves around the kind of knowledge and skills required for communication students to thrive. Today, the demands placed on graduates are numerous and difficult to fulfill. While it is often said that university needs to nurture industry-ready graduates, a question arises: is this a responsibility of the higher learning institution alone? Scarce resources and hectic academic rigour continue to be huge obstacles, making such demands more difficult to fulfill. What communication faculty should aim for is to strive for a balanced and holistic curriculum. This needs to include the fundamental knowledge and skills of communication, ethical values and critical thinking.
It should be understood that the nurturing of students to ensure that they are ready for employment is a collective responsibility of every stakeholder involved. It requires the university, government and non-governmental organisations, the industry and the alumni, among others, to work closely together and contribute towards student development.
The third issue centres on the need for a paradigm shift in communication studies. At the start of this article, it was pointed out that communication studies in Malaysia was influenced by the American system. Fast forward to today, how far have we moved away from the Euro-American influence? At this juncture, it is important for the communication faculty to figure out its way and the direction that it needs to be heading to in the future.
As argued by Klaus Jensen and Russell Neuman, communication should be studied based on context and purpose. It needs to take into consideration technological and societal changes as well as the history. If our concern when communication studies started in Malaysia in the early 1970s was to formally train media professionals based on the development communication paradigm, what would be its focus now and in the future? Even though such questions are not new and may have been addressed in the past, there is a need to continually revisit the communication studies curriculum from time to time, as we are living in a state of flux.
Dr Nurzali Ismail is Dean of the School of Communication, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).