On repeated occasions, surveys in Australia and elsewhere report business leaders complaining about graduates without appropriate skills. Most recently, Dr Simon Eassom has proclaimed this in an article ‘What will the Uber university look like?’ in the Australian Campus Review newspaper. He thinks that traditional universities could be swept aside just like Uber is transforming the taxi industry in many countries using new technology.
Recently I wrote about two factors that could explain this: the implicit privileging of writing about all other forms of communication and implicit relegation of collaboration throughout our education system. Graduates, therefore, tend to have weak skills in listening, seeing and reading, even drawing and visual communication, all of which are critical for engineering and most other professions. Especially for engineers, it is unlikely that they know how to collaborate effectively since this is rarely if ever taught. Even though students practice teamwork in many group projects, in the absence of explicit teaching and assessment, bad team behaviours will be reinforced just as much as good ones. And teamwork is different from effective collaboration in a technical context such as engineering.
In our research, we observed that young engineers rarely practiced effective collaboration techniques. Some older engineers developed remarkably effective skills but without being able to explain them.
This helps to explain why the reputation of graduates is so low, particularly in the minds of business employers. And it is not just engineers, apparently, that are said to have terrible communication and collaboration skills.
My research on engineers provides some novel answers that lie deep within the structure of our education systems. There are some other factors that have emerged from this research affecting not just engineers, but all graduates.
In this post I will describe the third of these factors: the implicit devaluation of ideas about money in universities.
First, from a curriculum perspective, all considerations of “money” in contemporary higher education seem to be deflected to business schools. “That’s a business issue, don’t raise it here!” While many students, especially engineers, study economics, finance, accounting and perhaps marketing, they only discuss these issues in the context of courses taught by a business school.
Another factor lies behind the common biblical mis-quote from the Paul’s letter to Timothy “money is the root of all evil” (Paul wrote that it is the love of money which causes all the trouble). As a result, considerations of money, even in curriculum discussions, are treated with disdain. Within universities, there is a continual tension between the notion of education as an unquestioned social good, and the idea that even universities have to operate within budgets and control their expenses.
Of course, privileging money above other values and virtues would be a great mistake yet I argue that ignoring money is just as great a mistake. Whether we like it or not, money is part of our contemporary human society and a powerful driver of human behaviour.
The result, at least for engineering students, is that engineering courses are silent on the subject of finance and money, just as business school courses are silent on engineering and technical considerations, with one exception. While technological innovation is associated with value creation in the business world, in recent years the word “technology” has been narrowed in popular discourse to embrace only information technology. If you doubt this, check out the “technology” section of any major financial newspaper. Beyond this simplistic notion, business courses don’t explain how engineers create value.
There’s a good reason why they don’t teach this. As far as I can tell from my most recent research, there are no explanations in the business literature that academics could draw on to teach this. It might be a little premature since I am still writing up the results of this research, but as far as I can tell, the reasons why most engineering activities create economic value have not been explained in the business research literature.
Bringing economic considerations back into the conversation, in an appropriate way, is critical across a wide range of university teaching.
So there are good reasons why engineering students, among many others, graduate from universities unfit for the business world: not only are the connections between their degree studies and economic value creation not explained, but the underlying theoretical understanding seems to be missing from business research literature. It is not surprising, therefore, to find (as we have in several research projects) that engineers seldom think about value creation in their work, and find it hard to explain how their work creates value beyond cost-saving measures.
So, prescriptions from people like Dr. Eassom (who suggests that universities should buy IBM computers and software) will founder because of weaknesses in our understanding on how engineers, along with graduates working in many other professions and leadership roles, contribute economic and social value.
Weakness in fundamental understanding like this one cannot be addressed by curriculum changes or even new teaching methods. First we have to see these knowledge gaps, then spend years conducting research to build workable understandings that can explain how, for example, engineers create economic and social value. Only then will we be able to think of helping students understand these ideas, provided we can build conceptual bridges between engineering and business schools.
Don’t expect change anytime soon. And I think an Uber-like transformation of traditional universities is unlikely because, as I am arguing here, we lack the understanding needed to solve this issue.
In the meantime, there is much we can do with workplace and postgraduate education and I will propose some ideas in future blog posts. In the meantime, if you have ideas on this, please add your comments.
PS: I am posting this from Lahore, Pakistan, where our air conditioners are about to appear in department stores and we will know for sure whether people buy them and like them. The hot weather of the summer season is just 2-3 weeks away.