John Hinchcliff: Universities need to branch out to meet needs

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Planning to interest primary school children in science and technology would be a useful strategic initiative in securing eventual engineering graduates. Photo / Thinkstock
Planning to interest primary school children in science and technology would be a useful strategic initiative in securing eventual engineering graduates. Photo / Thinkstock

The logic of Professor Fenwick's article in Thursday's Herald entitled: "Minister's wish will take years to be granted" cannot be faulted.

Planning to interest primary school children in science and technology would be a useful strategic initiative in securing eventual engineering graduates. Of course, this long-term initiative would be difficult with so few teachers trained in science.

I sympathise entirely with the concerns of faculty in the humanities areas who fear funding cuts.

Also, I would add another difficulty to the mix of challenges for university administrators and government. The world of technology is changing dramatically and some graduates in subjects such as engineering find what they learned in the first year is outdated by the time they reach their final year.

I recall, while I was Head of Humanities at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, that a hugely expensive programme in a branch of engineering was established at the behest of the industry. By the time the students graduated four years later, there were no jobs available. The curriculum was no longer relevant to industry.

The following are suggested answers.

First, to recruit more students for engineering I recommend following the example of Nelson College where more than 400 boys are exposed to trades/technology/ITO courses in years 11-13. Those destined for university can learn to appreciate and, for some, be captivated by this learning experience. Those not suited to university gain a commitment to and a start in learning a trade. Other schools including King's College offer similar opportunities.

Unfortunately, the Ministry does not recognise this worthwhile educational provision. Nelson College is forced to seek private donations to fund this most successful programme to provide technological subjects to all students.

Secondly, we must find ways to quickly assist students to develop skills to participate in the work force as engineers and to meet the shortfall.

Students might enroll in one of the various MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) programmes offered by prestigious universities such as Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Stanford. Some are tuition-free. For example, a Stanford Professor offered three computer science courses online in September last year and immediately attracted 450,000 students from 190 nations. A professor from MIT offers a course in "Circuits and Electronics" to 155,000 students from 160 nations. A New Zealand university could offer assignments based on such material for credit towards a degree.

The president of Stanford said there was a tsunami changing the face of university education as lectures are being replaced by imaginative, creative and interactive experiences. Professor Mitchell Dunier of Princeton University, teaching sociology to a class of 40,000 students in a free MOOC, enthusiastically reported: "Within three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I'd had in my whole teaching career."

This is not to avoid the practical laboratory work that must be offered. More lab workers will be needed. But the labs could be scheduled six days and evenings for 50 weeks per year.

Then perhaps universities could negotiate for students to learn any unusual and innovative fields alongside specialist experts within the workplace.

Perhaps the practice of cross-crediting could be explored more effectively. Boundaries between traditional disciplines are being transcended, with new and different inquiry-driven rather than discipline-driven learning yielding new offerings such as Nanomolecular Sciences and Computational Biophysics. Institutions could co-operate to facilitate less expensive and more diverse programmes.

In the future, industry will need different specialisations. We should make use of what is now available in our workplace and online. There are continually improving and less expensive ways to engage in learning opportunities.

Dr John Hinchcliff is a former head of AUT University.

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