Recently, a professional educator with a controversial message paid a visit to the Faculty of Management at the University of Manitoba. Some of the academics assembled to hear him reacted as if he had landed from an alien spaceship.
The visitor was not from outer space, but from General Electric, one of world’s largest and most successful corporations. He is in charge of an in-house training program that dispenses $800 million a year, a sum more than three times the U of M’s entire budget.
Why does GE spend so much money on formal education? The university system cannot supply workers with the appropriate skills. The American speaker estimated that North American post-secondary schools miss out on $70 billion spent every year by the corporate world to endow in-house programs to fill that gap. In recent years, dozens of accredited "corporate universities" have been formed.
GE hires 3,500 university graduates every year and almost all of them immediately move into the company’s two-year post-graduate course. The visitor quite bluntly told the audience that if the university system cannot, or will not provide adequate staff, they will go around it and train their own.
He spoke with alarm about the inability of universities to embrace change and adapt to new conditions. He estimated that to keep ahead of the learning curve required in the real world, universities should be changing their curricula at the rate of 40 per cent a year. "If you think you’re on the right track and you stay there," he quipped, "you’ll get run over eventually."
Lack of flexibility also derails the ivory tower’s ability to change. GE offered one university $4 million to run an academic program. The money was turned down because the instructors refused to travel off campus to teach the course. "Sometimes our ideas are formally accepted," he said, "but [universities] are not really serious about the effort."
Motorola Corporation, which pioneered the "corporate university" concept, started its internal program after many unsuccessful attempts to negotiate curriculum changes with established schools. Endless rounds of meetings and approvals convinced them that the academics were incapable of coping with the information revolution.
The failure of universities to provide graduates with the requisite knowledge to succeed in the workplace is a contentious issue, and the defenders of academic autonomy rose to defend the status quo. The gathering predictably heard alarms about a "Mickey Mouse University," the evils of corporate profits, "multi-national corporate agendas", and the importance of the "quality of life."
The speaker from GE had already spoken about the "quality of life." He insisted his company wanted well-rounded employees with a solid grounding in the liberal arts. Learning Shakespeare, for instance, might not appear to have anything to do with the bottom line, but it teaches analytical habits that are invaluable in the end.
Testimony to the business world’s frustrations arrived in the form of the local manager of a major computer company. "We can’t get engineers from you. We can’t get computer-trained people," he said. "You come to us all the time asking for money, and then we’re forgotten."
The manager said tenure is a major roadblock to the ability of universities to provide relevant training. He stated that the University of Winnipeg can not expand its courses in computer science because the payroll is bloated with tenured professors in fields in which there is little student interest and no social need.
Most universities long ago mortgaged themselves to the public purse. Discussing accountability for these funds is always postponed by appeals to scholastic independence and the like. But who pays the piper sooner or later calls the tune.
General Electric and others have clearly demonstrated what will happen if universities continue to ignore their tuition-paying customers and their taxpaying sponsors.
They will just go around them.