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 occupational groups and depreciate the value of many academic credentials.
The half life of an MBA is six years. So without regular updates, the value of postgraduate and undergraduate education declines as knowledge 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 graduates 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 programs 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 cherrypicking their learning opportunities. By selecting short learning programs at times that are convenient to their professional life and that are related directly to their needs, they are customising 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 institution for its area of recognised expertise, or undertaking 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 universities migrated from postgraduate education to career-long learning. This would require the integration of graduate and continuing education programs and the shift from the current transaction 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 remuneration package with the benefits of recognition, development and retention.
In sum, universities represent some of the oldest and most conservative forms of organisation 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 leverage 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 organisations will invariably rise up to fill this void. And they already are.
Roger Collins is Professor Emeritus of the University of NSW and chairman of national accounting firm, Grant Thornton