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Education or training - meeting student and employer expectations

A Sutharshan, M Torres and S P Maj
School of Computer and Information Science
Edith Cowan University

1. Introduction

As government funding is effectively reduced institutions must operate in an increasingly competitive market place. Universities are responding to this challenge by various means that include seeking alternative sources of revenue and attempting to attract and retain students. The commercial arms of Australia's universities are expected to generate significant revenue streams from a variety of activities such as fees from foreign students, patenting, leasing university facilities, organising conferences, etc.(De La Harpe, 1998). Basic marketing theory dictates that marketing can either be 'asset driven' or 'demand driven'. In contrast to the more traditional asset driven philosophy, the command driven approach requires market analysis to identify and profile market segments. The 1996 ECU Orientation Student Survey (Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering) rated job prospects as the most important factor in choosing to study at ECU. Campus Review further supports this:
Although graduates come from diverse backgrounds and ages, the predominant reason why they had gone to university was to get skills, knowledge and a qualification which would assist them in either gaining employment or enhancing their prospects for promotion or a more rewarding job. (Campus Review, 1996)
However, a market based analysis of potential employers within Western Australia was conducted by Maj who found a significant lack of relevance of university curriculum within the field of computer and network technology (Maj, Robbins, Shaw, & Duley, 1998). The same evaluation was completed at two European universities with comparable results (Maj, Veal, & Charlesworth, 2000). Students are taught network modelling, design and management but they do not physically construct networks. The results clearly demonstrate that students lacked knowledge about PC technology and the basic skills need to operate on computer and network equipment in a commercial environment. This is despite the fact that most students thought such knowledge would be beneficial. The survey indicated that any practical knowledge students have of hardware is largely a result of experience outside the course. At the second university the results demonstrate that these students had a broad, hobbyist's understanding of the PC but no knowledge of health and safety law. Significantly, the students interviewed identified that their skills and knowledge of PCs and networks came from self study or employment, not from courses at university. Again student responses indicated that such knowledge would be useful (Maj, Fetherston, Charlesworth, & Robbins, 1998). The results of these surveys would suggest a possible failure of universities to ensure the relevance of curriculum within the field of computer and network technology. According to Lowe, cited by (Armitage, 1995), universities risk becoming 'corporatist factories dispensing irrelevant degree programs to gullible students', and further that some universities show 'an attitude toward their students bordering on the contemptuous' by recycling 'tired old courses'.

In order to obtain practical skills, many university students, on graduation, go on to study at TAFE. According to (Donaghue, 1997) the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee's Credit Transfer Working Party found that 'while 12,700 VET students moved to the university sector in 1993, 10,400 university students moved to VET'. Furthermore, Donaghue reported findings of the recent Werner report that 'Personal development' followed by 'to gain practical skills not obtained in my higher qualification' were the most likely reasons for undertaking a TAFE course.

Furthermore, students without commercial experience may not have a clear understanding of employer expectations and accordingly may depend entirely on universities. Havard, Hughes and Clarke have noted the general lack of information given to students regarding employer expectations:

On completion of their academic programme the graduate was given no way of knowing how their skills compared to the requirements of industry (Havard, Hughes, & Clarke, 1998)

2. An employers perspective

A medium sized government body recently advertised three temporary vacancies in the IT field. The positions were advertised by the career services of each university in Western Australia (WA) and Technical and Further Education (TAFE). The salary offered was between $37,600 to $41,220, which is competitive within the IT field as a starting salary. The vacancies were ideally suited to graduates from any mainstream discipline in IT (Computer Science, Information Technology, Business IT etc). However there was an essential requirement for at least some knowledge of Oracle programming. The government body, would provide further training in Oracle. Oracle is the dominant database internationally and is used by most local government bodies in WA. Significantly there were only 15 applicants. There was one applicant from Curtin University, five from TAFE, six from ECU and three were not currently students. It should be noted that up until recently only TAFE and ECU taught Oracle programming. Significantly most of the applicants obtained the vacancy information not through the career service, but through other contacts such as word of mouth.

From the fifteen applicants seven were invited for an interview. The main reason for not choosing the other applicants was that they did not provide any evidence that they had knowledge of Oracle. This was despite the fact that at least three of the candidates not selected did have an adequate knowledge of Oracle. It is perhaps not understood by students that employers often conduct a preliminary evaluation of applicants by means of a simple checklist of requirements. No mention of Oracle in a resume results in a score of zero for those criteria - resulting in an automatic rejection. All applicants selected for interview were given the list of ten questions to be addressed during the interview. In effect they all knew what questions they were going to be asked. One applicant was unsuccessful because of their poor ability to communicate during the interview. In the final analysis two full time positions and two part time positions were offered. Various questions must be considered. How effective are the career services in communicating employment opportunities to students? Do students make use of the career services? Are students taught presentation and communication skills? Should universities teach what are considered by commerce to be essential knowledge? Should employers not take a more active role in training in specific skills?

3. A university perspective

Universities typically have management structures designed to ensure curriculum is relevant to the needs of industry. Within ECU there is a Course Consultative Committee that meets every semester and a periodic review every five years. Representatives from local companies are members of the Course Consultative Committee. The Graduate Destination Survey (GDS), run by the Graduate Careers Council, conducts a regular analysis of the employment of graduates. ECU also has the Cooperative Education for Enterprise Development (CEED) scheme in which high academic achievers work on industry sponsored projects. In the final analysis universities must provide an education for IT graduates that will find employment in a wide range of jobs. Furthermore the IT industry is characterised by a fast rate of technical development and change. Universities must educate rather than train. The latest software tool of today may well be obsolete by tomorrow. Training is perceived as a specific, short term activity. It is the expectation that after graduating the employer will provide training in products that are specific to the company. All universities in WA teach the principles of database technology and programming. The main emphasis should arguably be that the theory of database technology is taught which is applicable to all databases. The choice of database used should be a secondary consideration. It is not possible to provide undergraduate with experience in enormous range of software tools, techniques, and methods etc. that are required by prospective employers.

4. Professional practice - a way forward?

Education and training may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Technical expertise is an enhancement of theoretical knowledge. According to Cervero:
the popular wisdom among practicing professionals is that the knowledge they acquire from practice is far more useful than what they acquire from more formal types of education (Cervero, 1992).
Cervero further argues that the 'goal of professional practice is wise action' and that 'knowledge acquired from practice is necessary to achieve this goal'. Both declarative and procedural knowledge are necessary for professional practice. Declarative knowledge is knowledge that something is the case; procedural knowledge is knowledge how to do something. Cervero clearly makes the point that:
A major difference between experts and non-experts in any field is that experts have far more procedural knowledge. That is, they know how to perform their craft.
Whilst theoretical knowledge can still be taught it may be preferable to provide a more appropriate environment of the associated procedural knowledge. Even though all universities in WA teach database technology and programming, until recently only ECU specifically taught Oracle programming. At ECU the database theory is taught and Oracle is used as the vehicle for teaching database technology and programming. Furthermore all student workshops are based on Oracle technology. Students therefore acquire commercially relevant skills. Oracle is the de facto standard for Database technology not only in WA but also internationally. Such skills can be perceived highly by prospective employers. According to Goldsworthy:
skill refers to a person's ability to do something well. It relates to expertness, a practiced ability, a dexterity in performing a task. It is an outcome that flows from knowledge, practice, inherent abilities and an understanding of the task to be performed. (Goldsworthy, 1993)
Such skills can reinforce the theoretical framework of the curriculum. Without a practical application and implementation theory alone may be inadequate. According to Ramsden, 'Many students can juggle formulae and reproduce memorised textbook knowledge while not understanding their subjects in a way that is helpful for solving real problems' (Ramsden, 1992). Rather then lowering academic standards Professor Lowe argues, 'the complexity of the real world is more intellectually taxing than living in imaginary worlds of friction-less planes, perfectly free markets or rational policy analysis' (Armitage, 1995).

5. Private training providers

The private sector is well established with international leverage and offer competitively priced but very high quality courses in a fast moving and highly competitive environment. Such courses provide internationally recognised certification and training to clearly defined, benchmarked standards. By example, the Novell and Microsoft certification program course notes are produced by educational designers and distributed internationally. It has been suggested that such training can be part of the award structure (Maj, Robbins et al., 1998). Indeed, Deakin University now offer a Bachelor of Computing (Networking Technologies) that was developed in conjunction with Microsoft and Com Tech Educational Services. Com Tech are an international training provider. Significantly this undergraduate award offers certification as both Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and A+ Service Technician. A+ certification is the major generic IT support qualification in the world. This is arguably a blend of both theoretical knowledge and commercially relevant skills.

6. Conclusions

The primary objective for the majority of students attending university is to gain employment in a competitive market place. It is highly significant that after graduating more university students now go to study at TAFE than vice versa. The decision to do so is typically to obtain commercially relevant skills. This is symptomatic of a failure of universities. It is generally considered that universities educate and employers train. This paradigm should be revisited. A good case can be made for providing both an education and commercially relevant skills.

7. References

Armitage, C. (1995). 'Irrelevant Degree Factories' must change with times. The Australian, 23.

Campus Review (1996). Educating the Workforce for the New Millennium. Campus Review, May 1-7.

Cervero, R. M. (1992). Professional practice, learning and continuing education: an integrated perspective. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 11(2), 91-101.

De La Harpe, M. (1998). ECU plans to make an entrance. Campus Review, May, pp. 6.

Donaghue, B. (1997). SA TAFE given top marks by higher end users. Campus Review, March 19-25.

Goldsworthy, A. W. (1993). IT and the competency debate - skill vs knowledge a major issue. The Australian Computer Journal, 25(3), 113-122.

Havard, M., Hughes, M., & Clarke, J. (1998). The introduction and evaluation of key skills in undergraduate courses. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 1, 61-68.

Maj, S. P., Fetherston, T., Charlesworth, P. & Robbins, G. (1998). Computer and network infrastructure design, installation, maintenance and management - a proposed new competency based curriculum. Proceedings of the Third Australasian Conference on Computer Science Education, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Maj, S. P., Robbins, G., Shaw, D., & Duley, K. W. (1998). Computer and network installation, maintenance and management - a proposed new curriculum for undergraduates and postgraduates. The Australian Computer Journal, 30(3), 111-119.

Maj, S. P., Veal, D., & Charlesworth, P. (2000). Is computer technology taught upside down? Paper presented at the 5th Annual Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education, University of Helsinki, Finland.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Authors: A Sutharshan, M Torres and S P Maj, School of Computer and Information Science, Edith Cowan University. Contact author: a.sutharshan@vgo.wa.gov.au

Please cite as: Sutharshan, A., Torres, M. and Maj, S. P. (2001). Education or training - meeting student and employer expectations. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/sutharshan.html


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