Designing university curricula for the future

Universities and industry have been collaborating for well over 100 years. The principal nature of these collaborations has generally been research-focused, where industry has provided funding for university researchers to tackle strategic projects that drive industry innovation, development and-or contribute to economic growth.

The partnerships have not always been smooth sailing. There is a cultural divide between how universities and industry operate, think and behave. However, as long as there is mutual benefit – a much-needed stream of funding for universities and, for industry, access to expert researchers with innovative capacity – such collaborations continue.

The university-industry partnership is less well established when it comes to authentic participation in curriculum design. Curriculum design here refers to a planned sequence of learning experiences for an entire degree programme. It includes consideration of programme aims, student learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment tasks mapped across a whole programme.

Curriculum collaboration

There is no doubt that employers rely on higher education providers to deliver qualified and skilled employees and universities rely on industry to provide work placements for their students and to employ their graduates.

For the best fit to occur between input and output (graduates), the two parties should be clearly and regularly communicating their expectations with each other. Notwithstanding professional learning (skills and attributes), usually outlined by a professional body as in the case of engineering and expected to be addressed in the curriculum, participation of industry in the design of curriculum is less prevalent.

Collaboration between industry and higher education in the design process is still rather a contentious issue for some in the higher education sector.

In addition to providing workplace experience and enhancing graduate employment prospects, other instances of association include industry site visits for students on certain courses, guest presentations or lectures by industry personnel and the inclusion of students in industry-supported competitions.

However, while these represent valuable types of engagement, they are not generally applied in a whole-programme way, but rather are incorporated into a few subjects and dependent on individual academics and their industry contacts. In other words, there is no overarching framework and-or (maybe) support (or maybe even incentive) available to ensure a comprehensive approach is taken.

One particular role comfortably assigned to industry is that of membership on a university advisory committee that meets perhaps once or twice annually.

Ideas development

A central component of a productivity growth strategy for any society is to develop the skill base of its workforce. A prosperous economy relies on a skilled and educated workforce. Today’s economies more than ever are less based on physical capital and more on ideas development.

Young people need to be presented with a curriculum that strengthens their preparation for living and working and positioning the course of action in a progressively more multifaceted, fast altering and globally interdependent world. Employers want job-ready employees with the requisite relevant knowledge as well as skill-sets to ‘hit the ground running’.

But we know that education is about much more than preparation for a single job. It has to be about producing individuals with analytical and creative minds capable of applying and creating new knowledge.

It has to be about engaging young people in learning, which is durable, transferable and broad-ranging, but also appropriate for the real world. It has to be about equipping them with broadly-based graduate skills that sit comfortably alongside professional-discipline specific knowledge, values and understandings.

The most successful partnerships are built on trust, having a common vision and seeing mutual benefits.

It takes time to establish such partnerships. It does not mean industry becoming the dominant decider of what learning outcomes, content, learning activities and assessment tasks should make up an academic programme, which is what some academic staff are concerned about.

What a sincere partnership with industry will provide for is inclusion of a real-world, contemporary perspective about workforce skills that complement a theoretical knowledge base. Each party brings important complementary knowledge, expertise and perspectives.

In the end, it is the students who will benefit from genuine industry-university collaborations. They will be assured of studying a curriculum that is relevant and aligned with the real world of work and one that advances their professional knowledge, skills and understanding and, ultimately, improves their chances of employment.

Dr Nita Temmerman is a former pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean (faculty of education) at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently chair of two higher education academic boards in Australia, visiting professor to universities in the Pacific and Middle East, as well as invited specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, invited external reviewer with Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, registered expert with the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, and a published author.