When Luis Charalambous enrolled in a media degree at the University of New South Wales, he dreamt of being a television reporter. But a year ago, just as he was completing his studies, news of savage job cuts at Fairfax and News Limited broke. Already in short supply in a difficult industry, job opportunities were about to get scarcer.

Charalambous is not alone. As job prospects in the mainstream media decline, the number of journalism degrees offered by universities continue to climb. The number of students enrolled in journalism courses has increased rapidly since 2007, but where will these young hopefuls work?

To find out the number of students enrolling in journalism degrees who intended to become journalists after graduating, Crikey asked universities for enrolment statistics from 2007 to 2012. The programs had to be specific to journalism — arts degrees did not count unless there was a specific journalism major, and only communications degrees with journalism streams were included.

The number of students enrolled in journalism courses at these universities has increased from roughly 1150 in 2007 to 1750 in 2012, with the greatest increases in 2009 and 2010. While some universities, like the University of Sydney, enrol roughly the same number of students per year to keep entry requirements high, others like the University of Technology, Sydney and Griffith University have sharply increased their intake. Some universities, including the University of NSW and Swinburne, have only begun to offer journalism degrees in the last three years.

The number of journalists working in Australia varies widely on account of differing definitions, but estimates range from between 7000 to 14,000. Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011 showed a 13% decrease in the number of print journalists since 2006 to around 5510 — and that was before several large-scale redundancies at mastheads around the country. Those redundancies have created a bigger pool of potential employees, making it more difficult for graduates to find employment.

News Ltd, Fairfax and the ABC, which used to employ large numbers of students, now take very few. Peter Fray, a former editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and now a media lecturer at the University of Sydney, says although graduates with journalism skills are still in demand, they are more likely to work creating content for health funds or banks. As the media is broken down into smaller organisations over the coming decade, traditional cadetships (already now uncommon) are likely to disappear.

Some journalism academics say the number of jobs in the industry is irrelevant to the value of teaching journalism. Dr Kayt Davies at Edith Cowan University (who did not provide figures) told Crikey the pursuit of enrolment numbers is “most likely going to be used to bash the practice of teaching journalism in universities based on the frankly quite insulting notion that we are doing [vocational education]”. She says if similar logic were applied to history students, it wouldn’t be taught because there are few ads for historians.

“Those aspiring to journalism would be better off undertaking a degree which will give them an actual body of knowledge and set them apart from other applicants …”

But media/journalism degrees are often seen as vocational qualifications. The Edith Cowan University handbook suggests a student with a degree in history might become a teacher, researcher, politician or public servant, the journalism major, accredited by the Journalism Education Association of Australia, has related careers of journalist, copywriter and online reporter. And the handbook goes on to say students “regularly win national journalism awards and work in major news organisations”. Most journalism degrees have several vocational components, specialising in broadcast journalism or news reporting and come with an internship requirement.

The marketing blurb seems to be working. A survey published last year in the Australian Journalism Review found 82% of first-year journalism students “identified news or entertainment journalism as their preferred area of work for the rest of their career”. By their final year, this number was down slightly to 75%.

Universities have a financial interest in enrolling students in media and communication programs rather than in arts. By some quirk of governmental bureaucracy, humanities courses like history, English and philosophy are classified under a separate funding cluster to communication and media studies. The cap on student contributions for both clusters are the same, but the federal government contributions per student enrolled in a media degree ($11,681) is more than double that of one enrolled in a humanities course ($5369).

“[Journalism schools] have a financial interest in recruiting students,” said Lisa Pryor, a former Sydney Morning Herald journalist and editor. “Those aspiring to journalism would be better off undertaking a degree which will give them an actual body of knowledge and set them apart from other applicants — science, an arts degree where they learn a second language, economics.”

But higher education analyst Andrew Norton says even if journalism students don’t end up in the media, they are more likely than others to end up working in managerial or professional jobs, with 72% of journalism graduates in these positions, far above the average for more general arts degree holders.

As for Charalambous? A year after graduating, he works as an online content editor and admits the job opportunities don’t quite resemble the specific roles he had imagined at the beginning of his studies. But yes, if he had to do it all again, he’d still pick media.