Op-ed: Reimagining higher education — Academia versus industry
By Johnny Ma, MEng ’23 (MSE)This op-ed is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers. As an opinion piece, the views shared here are neither an expression of nor endorsed by UC Berkeley or the Fung Institute. What if your learnings from school perfectly aligned with the skills you needed in your career? Have you ever taken classes outside your major to get experience and exposure for your next career transition? As it stands, academia and industry are not well integrated with each other. That is, not all things we learn as university students translate into the appropriate skills and competencies needed to succeed in the workforce. Solving specific problems are required in the industry, but academia emphasizes broad problem-solving approaches that are more theoretical than practical. At the same time, while academics are motivated by publications, industry is motivated by profits and competitive edge. These differing values lead to a division between the two sides, which results in graduates who are ill-equipped to thrive in the vocational-specific economy and contributes to rising underemployment, underpaid internships, and delayed entry into what many consider a path to middle-class status. Higher education needs to be reimagined such that industry and academia both benefit. Industry needs graduates who are vocationally competent and academia needs to train and educate students with industrially relevant skills that prepare them for vocation. A survey of contemporary discussions shows there is a broad sentiment towards improving education. For example, in his book, The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen laments how despite doubling education expenditure per pupil from $5,593 in 1970–1971 to $12,463 in 2006–2007 (adjusted for inflation), the average reading and mathematics scores of high school graduates have remained the same¹ . For such a big increase in spending, we might expect greater improvement in the quality of education than what we have seen. If expenditure is uncorrelated with better outcomes, then, perhaps it is the curriculum content that modulates outcomes. This is the basis for one of Patrick Collison’s op-eds from The Atlantic, in which he details the important challenges facing educators in how to select and train the most talented students in society. In this endeavor, Collison says we know shockingly little about what makes education effective and proper. Collison cites studies from diverse disciplines that all investigate this similar problem but somehow reach uncommon conclusions² .
“If education quality is uncorrelated with expenditures and diversely complicated, what is the best thing we can do to better educate our students?”As it stands, there are significant differences between industry and academia in how they approach learning and research. For instance, assignments in academia tend to be scheduled in advance. Students are often required to spend time explaining their answers. Contrarily, assignments can be urgent or spontaneous in industry with little to no advance notice, which leads to a preference for conciseness. Additionally, research in industry tends to focus on solving a specific problem unique to the organization to either attract investors or maintain a competitive advantage over competitors. In academia, research is primarily motivated by publication and solving theoretical problems to attract students and grants. Due to the differences between the two ecosystems, there is a cultural difference that makes transitioning from one system to another difficult. I acknowledge that each system may have differing incentives and that those differences may be valuable. However, one of academia’s goals is to prepare its students for their futures. For those students not intending to stay in academia, their natural path after graduation is to enter the industry. In fact, a large majority of students must go through academia first before they enter industry. For this group of people, academia is failing to offer them the skills required to thrive in a differing value system, which leads to graduates who are ill-equipped to leave school. So what can we do to reimagine the future of higher education — to better equip our college graduates with the relevant skills they need to succeed? Herein we propose an industry-academic apprenticeship collaboration. This type of program organizes university classes with reputable organizations to solve a specific problem for that client or organization. This is a mutually beneficial collaboration. First, the organization benefits from students that are eager to solve problems specific to their business needs with fresh perspectives and access to university resources such as faculty and facilities that accelerate problem-solving. Students benefit by orienting their studies on industrially relevant problems and earning work experience. In this symbiotic relationship, new discoveries and knowledge can be generated. Note that the apprenticeship program is different from an internship because the internship is about education first and solving industrially relevant problems second, while the apprenticeship is about orienting a student’s education around an industrial problem. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, university graduates will thrive in an education environment that provides them the essential skills that match what is required in industry. This includes necessary work experience through industry-academic apprenticeship programs and a curriculum that orients a student’s studies around industrially relevant problems. Promoting skill-based learning will not only better equip graduates to face the modern world but save them from underemployment and crippling student debt. References ¹ Cowen, Tyler. The Great Stagnation : How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (eventually) Feel Better. Dutton, 2011. ² Patrick Collison, Tyler Cowen. “We Need a New Science of Progress.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Aug. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/we-need-new-science-progress/594946/. Connect with Johnny. Edited by Mary Tran.
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