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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.

Although it sounds like a romp, senior lecturer Wayne Moore says Charles Sturt University’s Batchelor of Computer Science (Games Technology) is a rigorous course. It’s also a passport to a well-paid career in an increasingly important industry: opportunities in the computer games business are expanding rapidly at a time when the wider information technology industry is only slowly coming out of recession.

Moore says the computer games business is particularly strong in Australia. “Australia has a couple of dozen companies. Recently I was at the Australian Game Developers Conference in Melbourne along with 400 or 500 other people. One local employer told me he was looking at hiring between 100 and 150 people next year.”

He warns that some of the jobs in the industry can be short-term, maybe for the life of a single project. However, he says it certainly looks as if the games business is going to keep on expanding for some time yet.

Computer games are bigger than Hollywood

In terms of worldwide sales, computer games are already bigger than Hollywood. Moore says, “Typically 50 to 100 programmers may work on one of the bigger games; the budget might be as high as $40 million”. To illustrate the amount of money at stake he points out that Microsoft has thrown billions of dollars into establishing its Xbox games machine.

CSU’s course is heavily geared towards the technical rather than the art and design side of development. There’s a lot of mathematics and coding in programming languages like C++. Prospective students need to get a relatively high UAI of 85 or over and have something of a background in maths and physics. Exposure to computer science at school helps, but it isn’t essential. Moore says the course teaches that subject from basic principles.

It’s a four-year degree course. Most of the first three years are taken up with computer science; though there are units dealing with psychology, maths, graphics and an introduction to computer games amongst others. There’s no formal hardware component. Students get to choose four extra subjects as electives.

The fourth year is either an industry placement or an honours programme that can lead to a Phd or Masters degree. About 60 percent of students have opted for placements and 40 percent have chosen further study. Moore is currently in discussions with Sony which may have placements for three or four students in its UK operation. He says, “I imagine if they do well there they can look at continuing on with that company.”

CSU: first game technology programme

A number of other Australian universities are now offering similar games-oriented courses and options. However, Moore says the CSU degree was the first programme expressly designed around games technology and its entire content has been specifically tailored to this end. “When you study graphics, you do it in a games context. You learn about maths so your games can include realistic looking smoke, you learn about physics to recreate authentic crashes.”

The CSU course covers a broad range of games, not just those played on a PC or console but also handheld and mobile phone-based ones. He says, “Our students get to cover the whole genre”.

Moore says there’s plenty of ‘hard yakka’ but his students do get an opportunity to play games, something that’s not generally encouraged with other computer science undergraduates. He says “They get to pull them apart”. There’s a games laboratory at CSU’s Bathurst campus equipped with the latest hardware and course students have exclusive access.

CSU’s Game Technology programme is about to enter its fourth year, the first intake of students are preparing to start their industry placements. Moore says that two or three students fell by the wayside because they were more interested in playing games than doing any work, but those people prepared to put in the effort all stand a good chance of graduating.

Demand for the course is strong. Moore says that like all other information technology courses the demand has tailed off over the last year, but the quality of the candidates has improved. Although there are some female students, Moore says their numbers are not as high as the one in six women working in the industry and that CSU is keen to entice more onto the programme.

Bachelor of Computer Science (Games Technology)

Knowledge workers are taking over.

A third of American employees are already knowledge workers. The number is lower in Australia and New Zealand, we’re catching up.

In developed, developing and even in some undeveloped countries knowledge workers are the fastest-growing employment group.

Knowledge workforce outnumbers industrial

In the developing world knowledge workers already outnumber industrial and agricultural workers. In more advanced countries they outnumber these two groups added together.

America has roughly as many knowledge workers as service industry workers. In most rich countries knowledge work is the most important economic sector in terms of economic and political clout.

Knowledge worker is a new idea

The idea that people can earn a living dealing purely with knowledge has only been around for 50 years.

Writer and management expert Peter Drucker is often credited with inventing the term. He first used the term ‘Knowledge Worker’ in his 1959 book “Landmarks of Tomorrow”.

Drucker modestly claims to be only the second person to use the phrase. He says the honour belongs to Fritz Machlup a Princeton economist.

Nevertheless, Drucker popularised the term and has spent many of the last 40 years expanding on the original idea and explaining its implications.

Misunderstood

Although the term is widely used and people generally understand what it implies, there is still much misunderstanding about its exact meaning — even among knowledge workers.

One common misconception is the term applies exclusively to people working in the information technology industry or elsewhere using products created by IT workers.

While almost all IT workers qualify, they are only a subset.

Anyone who makes a living out of creating, manipulating or spreading knowledge is a knowledge worker.

Broad church

That’s a wide definition. It includes teachers, trainers, university professors and other academics. You can categorise writers, journalists, authors, editors and public relations or communications people as knowledge workers. We’ll put aside for one moment arguments about whether the knowledge created by these people is accurate. Lawyers, scientists and management consultants are all included.

One key difference with other white-collar workers is the level of education and training. There may be knowledge workers who don’t have a formal tertiary education or high-level training. They are a minority.

You need a degree, mostly

As a rule, knowledge workers have a minimum of a university undergraduate degree. That’s not always the case. Older knowledge workers tend to have less formal qualifications than younger ones. That’s partly because higher education wasn’t ubiquitous when they started out — university isn’t the only path to knowledge.

Another reason is that practical experience counts for a lot. The key here is knowledge workers each individually posses their own reservoir of accumulated knowledge they apply in their work.

Compared with other groups of workers, they are well paid. Some are extremely well paid. Knowledge workers can be union members. But are often not organised in that sense.

This can lead to forms of genteel exploitation. Few knowledge workers are paid overtime. Yet employers expect most to voluntarily work for considerably more than the basic 40 hours a week.

Mobile

On the other hand, knowledge workers are more mobile than industrial workers and can often take their skills elsewhere at the drop of a hat. They often do.

Any employer who abuses knowledge workers’ professionalism is likely to see their most important assets walk out of the door. This applies as much today as it did when there were more jobs around.

Few governments have come to terms with the implications of having a highly mobile, highly educated, knowledge workforce.

Just as knowledge workers can quickly find a new employer if necessary, most can move freely between countries. Any nation that doesn’t look after its knowledge workforce can expect to lose it.

New Zealand

This is particularly applicable in New Zealand, which operates a so-called progressive income tax system that, at times, appears deliberately designed to alienate knowledge workers.

To understand this, compare the marginal and absolute rates of income tax paid by most New Zealand knowledge workers and you’ll notice they are substantially higher than in many competing nations.

Australia looks particularly attractive.

If anything the flow of knowledge workers migrating to more benign economies is accelerating.

Drucker distinguishes between classes of knowledge worker. High-knowledge workers include professional groups such as doctors and teachers deal mainly in the realm of the mind while the knowledge technologists work with their hands and brains in the IT industry, medicine and other areas. Although both categories of knowledge worker are growing, the bulk of growth comes from this second group.