The future of postgraduate education

by 29 Sep 2009

Without regular updates, the value of postgraduate and undergraduate education declines as knowledge creation increases, writes Dr Roger Collins

Increasing knowledge is a double-edged sword. While not all this knowledge has immediate or even eventual utility, this accelerating trend represents opportunity and threat. Knowledge informs progress. But it can seriously undermine the efficacy of our management practices and priorities, threaten the relevance and effectiveness of many occupa tional groups and depreciate the value of many academic credentials.

The half life of an MBA is six years. So with out regular updates, the value of postgraduate and undergraduate education declines as knowl edge creation increases.

Universities – leading contributors to and potential beneficiaries of knowledge creation – are caught in a time warp in terms of how they distribute knowledge and the development of related skills. There are at least three things that support this contention.

First, as already argued, new knowledge is creating obsolescence for students who fail to keep current in their field. Second, unless grad uates apply their newfound knowledge and skills soon after graduation, they are at risk of losing these assets. And third, the traditional structure, length and delivery channels of postgraduate pro grams are proving less appropriate for students who have demanding jobs and full personal lives.

So what might two options that could shape the future of postgraduate study be?

First, an increasing number of managers and professionals are recognising the benefits of cher rypicking their learning opportunities. By select ing short learning programs at times that are convenient to their professional life and that are related directly to their needs, they are cus tomising and modularising their learning in ways that are less disruptive and of greater value.

A short program in strategy or marketing, a program online – or in Shanghai – that widens their networks, selecting an educational institu tion for its area of recognised expertise, or under taking an intra-company program that integrates learning with immediate applications are more attractive options than two or three years of a broad-based program and disruptive attendance requirements.

A second option could be created if univer sities migrated from postgraduate education to career-long learning. This would require the inte gration of graduate and continuing education programs and the shift from the current trans action to a relationship mentality. Universities would have to modularise learning content, offer multiple distribution channels such as face to face, podcasts, online learning, and recognition of workplace-based learning.

It would enable them to move from a one-off lump-sum fee for a postgraduate degree to an annual service fee. Universities could then enlist enlightened organisations to pay for keeping their people current and relevant as part of their remu neration package with the benefits of recogni tion, development and retention.

In sum, universities represent some of the oldest and most conservative forms of organi sation in our society. Many advocate the value of research-based knowledge and renewal – yet have failed to evolve their own offerings to meet the needs of their stakeholders, to lever age their research and new technology, and to create national, regional and global networks for the development of learning content and delivery.

Under these circumstances, other organisa tions will invariably rise up to fill this void. And they already are.

Roger Collins is Professor Emeritus of the University of NSW, Chairman of national accounting firm Grant Thornton and a member of HR Leader’s editorial board