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Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce earmarked almost $29 million over the next four years to deepen New Zealand’s technology talent pool.

The money will pay for Information and Communications Technology grad schools in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The last part is important. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch all legitimately claim to be technology hubs. Post-earthquake Christchurch’s claim is the most fragile. Government money is a vote of confidence at an important time.

I doubt the planned Christchurch Innovation Precinct will attract start-ups. Technology entrepreneurs have better things to spend money on than renting fancy offices.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Technology companies have much to gain from clustering, it’s good for inter-company relationships. Innovation thrives in tight-knit communities. Putting a graduate school on the same site intensifies this effect.

Wellington’s geography gives the city a natural advantage when it comes to clustering. Auckland, however, is far more fragmented.

Labour ICT spokesperson Clare Curran says the plan is ‘woefully inadequate’. In a statement, she says 350 students in four years time is not enough and calls for a more focused technology policy.

While the centres are going to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, it seems they may not automatically be part of the universities or polytechnics in those cities. The government’s press release says:

A tender process will be used to seek innovative proposals from education providers and their industry partners to develop and operate the ICT Graduate Schools.

I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Is this the kind of teaching that can be sensibly outsourced? What do you think?

TechEd, now running in Auckland, is New Zealand largest technology event. By at least one important measure, the local event is a world-beater.

Microsoft NZ managing director Paul Muckleston says 2,500 delegates attended this year’s TechEd. We rarely see anything on this scale.

That’s a capacity crowd at the Sky City Convention Centre. Un-New Zealand like queues form for escalators before the day’s first sessions and there are long lines for lunch. Local bars and restaurants are packed when the day finishes. The expo space is busy even while the nine or so simultaneous sessions are running.
Microsoft Teched Auckland

Room for even more

Muckleston says he looks forward to when the new centre opens as he thinks he could get more people along. That’s plausible, tickets for the event generally sell out – a sure sign demand outstrips supply.

Although there have been many Microsoft TechEd events around the world, the New Zealand conference is one of seven held in 2013.

It’s not the largest, the US event attracts a crowd of around 7,000. TechEd Europe has about 5,000 attendees and in earlier years the Australian TechEd – usually held on the Gold Coast – gets a crowd around 2,800.

Which means in population-adjusted terms, Microsoft New Zealand beats its international counterparts by a long shot.

Mighty morphin’ TechEd

There are unflattering reasons for the relative popularity of the New Zealand event. Some point out there aren’t as many competing events in this country as elsewhere.

That view misses the point. Microsoft New Zealand is expert at engaging with local customers. It does this well – in larger markets the company can often seem distant and distracted, here you can just get people on the phone or run into them at events like TechEd.

Microsoft marketing director Frazer Scott says TechEd has been running for 18 years in New Zealand and the company has worked hard to make sure it stays fresh. He says Microsoft changes the emphasis and the approach every year to keep people coming back.

Substantial investment

The company enjoys better a better relationship with partners and customers here than overseas. This is only partly explained by the nation’s smallness or the tight-knittedness of the tech community.

Consider the commitment. One company sent more than 160 employees to the conference, many have dozens of staff at the event. At $1900 a ticket – although there are group discounts – that’s a big investment by any standards. Scott says Microsoft doesn’t aim to make money from the conference, although in a good year it does cover the costs of putting on the event.  And don’t forget it means almost an entire week where staff time can’t be billed to clients.

Companies see TechEd as a training exercise – which makes sense, after all, TechEd is short for technical education.

ZDNet Australia reports Google Australia calls for mandatory comp sci until year 10. The aim is to reverse the falling numbers of university computer science students.:

Google has called upon the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to increase the exposure of Australian primary and secondary school students to computer science, by making the new Digital Technologies subject mandatory from kindergarten until year 10.

If falling university computer science rolls is a problem – I’m not convinced it is – then the problem is not whether school children were force-fed the subject. It’ll be more because students view the courses as dull and unrewarding or because they don’t see a positive future for comp sci graduates.

These issues need addressing before teachers frog-march kiddies to compulsory programming or whatever.

Also, if government decides there’s a strategic need to train more young people in computer science, then subsidise fees for the course – that’ll work out a lot cheaper and more effective than any alternative.

 

Marketing consultant Johnny Moore writes about “a creeping extension of the need for academic qualifications, the ability to write clever essays” in The Tyranny of the Explicit.

He says:

The intention is good, but the practical effect is to engulf people in explicit, complicated systems and reduce their freedom – based on an unconscious assumption that everyone is not to be trusted. We give ascendancy to people who are really great at theory and effectively degrade practice. I think its rooted in the idea that one person or a group of people can effectively oversee a system and control how it works with written instructions.

One aspect of this is the arse-covering qualifications provide. If, say, a marketing manager hires a copywriter with a degree in copy-writing, they feel they are not to blame if the writer fails to deliver.

There’s an incentive in most organisations to engage the best-qualified person for a task, not the most experienced, best skilled or highest performer.

In 2001, Chris Woodhead, England’s chief inspector of schools caused a storm when he accused British universities of devaluing higher education by offering vacuous degrees.

At the time, London’s The Sunday Times carried a candid interview with Woodhead. Among other things he questioned whether many vocational courses deliver on their claims.

Woodhead says many courses don’t prepare students for the real world. He argues some vocational degrees do little to help a student’s employment prospects and do even less for their employers.

Britain’s Institute of Directors backed these comments, so did a number of employers.

Daft courses are here too

The criticisms could equally apply to courses now on offer in Australia and New Zealand – not to mention some of the less prestigious American universities, which have a long tradition of offering worthless qualifications and dubious courses.

Woodhead grabbed the headlines by decrying certain quasi-academic degrees on offer in the UK including; Golf course management, pig enterprise management, knitwear and beauty therapy courses.

And then there are Madonna Studies – if you’re wondering we are talking about the singer here, not theological investigation about the mother of Christ. Thankfully this is no longer on offer.

While daft-sounding degrees are easy targets Woodhead has a point. How many employers need workers who can deconstruct the lyrics of Material Girl‘?

You can read more about Woodhead’s comments and responses at the BBC news website. You can also read Woodhead’s comments on media studies – which he describes as a one-way ticket to the dole queue.

Is there value in media studies?

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there is any real value in media studies or the more offbeat subjects mentioned.

It’s interesting and disappointing, but predictable that most of the angry defensive response from academics to Woodhead’s comments focused on his trashing of seemingly silly courses and not his more important points about vocational education in general.

Clearly British academics are as insecure as antipodeans when it comes to handling constructive criticism.

Woodhead’s important point was the balance between vocational training and coherent academic learning is completely out of kilter.

The issue is not whether our society needs people trained at public expense in the subtle art of looking after golf courses, tending pigs or even reading newspapers, but whether such a course is on an academic par with an honours degree in Astrophysics.

Bigger picture

Woodhead rightly points out the danger in less obviously worthy courses of devaluing all higher education. It’s a real danger. I’ve known employers in knowledge industries who are suspicious of all graduatesthey think universities fill people’s heads with stupid ideas. Many of those who get beyond that level of thinking have doubts about anything other than a straightforward vocational degree.

I thought this attitude prejudiced and hard to understand until I interviewed a seriously strange person with a media studies degree for a newspaper job.

Common sense says one or two crazy examples are not enough evidence to deduce a trend and I like to keep an open mind but I have to say few of the media studies graduates I’ve interviewed are cut out to work in the media. It’s hard to image who might employ them. On the other hand people used to say the same thing about sociology, which has since become quite respectable.

It doesn’t make sense for education to stand still in a world where everything careers about at a frantic pace. However, there does need to be a benchmark for higher education.

Lively debate about vocation versus academic learning

There’s always been a lively debate over the value of degree level vocational training and more academic learning. Both have their place in higher education and ideally, most people entering the knowledge workforce will have the opportunity to experience both kinds of learning at some point. Modern economies need people trained in advanced skills as well as people trained how to think.

Yet there is a lot of real doubt about the worth of some courses. This isn’t new. In the late 1970s an acquaintance was accepted to study computer science at an American university. He sent me a copy of his first semester timetable. Of 30 timetabled hours, only four hours could be loosely described as studying computers.

There’s a lot to be said for a liberal education, but this bloke spent six hours a week on the university golf course as part of his computer science degree. In year one he was expected to reduce his handicap to six to pass – a handicap of four represented a high distinction.

Golf

Playing golf would ultimately account for 15 percent of his degree. Those of us studying in, then still rigorously academic, British universities were shocked.

On the other hand, from a vocational training point of view it’s not such a dumb idea. A career in the computer industry, particularly in commercial sales, might well be helped along by an ability to knock a small white ball into 18 holes.

The only way to steer through the higher education maze is to spend time researching the options. It’s  worth checking the academic reputation of courses, subjects within courses and institutions before signing up.

Less obvious and more difficult is checking with potential employers about the relative merits of these things. You’ll need to be canny about this – people often just pass on their own prejudices and not provide valuable insight. But education is too valuable to waste. You don’t want to spend three years getting a Mickey Mouse degree – even if you plan to work for Disney.