12 April 2006

Universities: working towards irrelevance

Over the weekend I had the chance to talk with a research administrator at Sydney's University of Technology (UTS), where I attended a few years ago. UTS prides itself on being distinct from the sandstone universities (Sydney's two biggest universities, USyd and UNSW, were built in the late 1800s from sandstone—it's supposed to be a deprecating reference) in offering relevant and up-to-date courses. I was fairly suprised then to have a conversation with her about postgraduate qualifications that went something like this:

Uni research lady: Are you interested in returning to uni for postgraduate work?
Me: I guess I don't really see a lot of value in postgrad education in the IT industry. It seems a lot more important in finance and business where lots of people have MBAs.
Uni research lady: Well, it's difficult to get a lecturing position at the university unless you have a PhD in the subject you want to teach.
Me: What about people with industry experience, then? Do you hire people with significant experience as lecturers?
Uni research lady: Not really. Some of them come in as guest lecturers, where they give just a few lectures for a class. Others take time to study and do a PhD. Of course, studying for a PhD isn't like studying normally.
Me: (thinks) Yeah, it's even less relevant than normal!

This kind of selection criteria for university lecturers seems destined to drive university courses into obsolescence. Not only are they stopping people with the most concrete, useful and practical experience from teaching at university, but they're forcing them to invest time in PhD research that will rarely be relevant to the courses they will teach. Under this system, the people most likely to end up as lecturers are the life-long academics—perhaps very knowledgeable about particular niche areas of research, but with minimal practical experience to ground their ideas.

Integrating skills and knowledge from different sources is a key quality of any successful organisation. For universities, that means a balance between PhD graduates and experienced practitioners. Educational institutions can't afford to become self-promoting elitist clubs if they want to remain relevant in the IT industry.