Risks in too much business input in university degrees

A student enrols in a postgraduate business degree. Lecturers teach two-thirds of the course on campus and the university’s corporate partners teach the rest at their offices.

The companies contribute heavily to course design and delivery. They teach subjects in a condensed “block mode” over a few weekends in a business-seminar format.

One subject is a work placement with a company, another involves completing projects for corporate partners. The companies offer top students full-time jobs and even provide course accreditation through a subject certification process, in addition to the degree.

What's not to like in a corporate model?

What’s not to like in a corporate model?

What’s not to like in this model? Plenty, if it goes too far and too much university teaching is corporatised and starts to resemble glorified business training.

Universities are pursuing industry engagement in teaching with extra vigour. One postgraduate course after another these days seems to have greater corporate involvement, be it through internships, work-based projects or corporate staff teaching subjects.

In my current master’s degree, a leading law firm teaches a core subject at its office. I’ll be interested in the style of teaching and how it compares to traditional uni learning.

Having interviewed several deans of university business schools in the past few months, I’ve heard plenty about the virtues of course co-design and co-delivery with corporates. Most deans enthusiastically promoted industry’s involvement in teaching and want more of it.

Of course, universities and industry collaborating on teaching is not new. Good universities have always had close industry involvement, through companies or business associations that accredit courses. Others use industry practitioners in a sessional-lecturer role.

A closer relationship between universities and corporates on teaching is needed – to a point. I have argued before in The Venture that companies outsourced too much teaching to universities and had too little input to course design and delivery.

Then they had the hide to grumble that some unis produced graduates with irrelevant skills. Corporate Australia should stop whingeing and get more involved with unis through their time and money – rather than relying mostly on taxpayers and students to fund university teaching and research.

Universities and companies collaborating on courses has many benefits. Done well, the model ensures students learn latest skills from industry practitioners in addition to academic theory from lecturers. They apply learning to real projects.

Better still, course co-delivery exposes students to future employers earlier in their degree. Students are encouraged to network in their industry from the start of the course, rather than get serious about getting a job at the end.

Corporates benefit from having input into courses, thus ensuring future graduates have the right skills in a fast-changing workplace. A closer relationship with universities gives corporates flexibility to teach just-in-time skills in the digital economy, and aids their recruiting.

Universities benefit by having more relevant, marketable courses that promote “real-life” projects and internships with companies. Also, closer relationships with companies on teaching have potential to extend into research and lift uni/industry collaboration.

But in the race to extend corporate involvement in teaching, it’s worth considering the risks.

The biggest is that universities allow some courses to become vocational skills-based programs, like short-form corporate training. Good universities provide learning that lasts a lifetime, not a quick batch of workplace skills that has a shorter shelf life than ever.

Another risk is corporates lowering academic standards in courses. In a previous master’s degree I completed, industry practitioners taught several subjects. Most had scant knowledge of latest academic research on the subject and teaching standards and commitment varied.

Consultants taught like consultants rather than skilled academics who maintain course rigour. Nobody failed the consultant-taught course. Like a business training seminar, attendance, in truth, was all that was needed to pass – an approach that devalued higher education.

Perspective is a further risk. A corporate manager teaching a university subject sounds great on paper. But the company provides one perspective: its own. A good academic teacher syntheses many perspectives through the research and provides a considered view.

Then there’s the risk that universities outsource teaching to corporates to cut costs, employ fewer full-time academics and skimp on research. I’ve seen this happen too many times in sessional-teaching where part-time lecturing is a low-paid, unreliable casual service job.

These and other risks are manageable if universities view corporate involvement as an extra benefit for students and industry, not a substitute for academia. That is, academics and “pracademics” (industry teachers) working together in the classroom to complement each other’s strengths.

Make no mistake: universities will devalue degrees and their brands – and do a disservice to students and employers – if they allow too many courses to become corporate training programs and sell out to big business.

Moderation is the key. There’s scope for greater industry involvement in teaching. But when a chunk of a course is delivered off-site by corporates, students should ask why they are paying tens of thousands of dollars for academic instruction that is increasingly less academic.

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