Creating an IT hub around a great university

Part one of Q and A with Auckland University professor John Hosking

As director of the Centre for Software Innovation at the University of Auckland since 2008, professor John Hosking has been at the sharp end of ensuring academic excellence translates into commercial success.

He is about to embark on a new challenge, as dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the Australian National University in Canberra. In part one of this Q and A interview he talks with Sarah Putt about what it takes to create a great university and why it’s important to inspire teenage girls about IT.

You have spoken publicly about creating a Great University, you said Auckland University is a good university, its in the top 50 in the world, but it’s not a …

I said it is a damn fine university; it is not yet a great university. If we as a nation want to have a strong technology hub here, then really what we need is a great university. If you look around the world the great technology hubs are associated with great universities.

So I am pretty passionate about the fact that New Zealand needs to invest in one great university, with a network of great contributors. Otherwise we are not going to have that technology hub that we all aspire too.

Are you talking about taxpayer investment, philanthropic investment?

Anything and everything. There is almost a direct correlation between the amount of money a university has to spend per student and the ranking that university achieves within the world. We punch above our weight in that ranking, given the amount of money per student we have available.

But to get to the aspiration we have as a university, then there has to be some way of getting more money per student available and, believe me, this university has diversified significantly as it looks to creating that funding.

A huge push in philanthropy, a huge push into industrial engagement, a huge push into non-traditional funding sources.

I think the figures are that the University of Auckland only gets about 30 percent of its income from the block teaching grant so that 70 percent is from other sources, which are closely related to researching or philanthropic donations and the like.

Without that [extra funding] we cannot reach the aspiration that we want to be, a great university, and that means the nation is short on reaching its aspirational goals to be a strong technology-led country that’s exporting more than just semi-processed agricultural products.

The university has diversified into engaging with industry and as director of the Centre for Software Innovation, you would have been at the sharp end of that. Can you tell me about that centre, why it was set up, what it’s done and how you found that interface with local industry.

Perhaps just step back a bit and say that this university has a great technology transfer office which is UniServices. If you look at the income generated by UniServices, both the contract research and IP commercialisation, it is doing an excellent job and is contributing greatly to that diversity of income.

In the Director role I work for UniServices and so I am part of that engagement process. The centre was set up to be a one-stop shop for people to come along from the IT sector and work out if there is somebody within the university that can meet their needs.

Can you talk about some of the successes?

A lot of the work we do is with small to medium-sized companies. Increasingly it has turned from being low-level technology engagements to being strategic engagements. How can we change the strategic direction of this company.

I facilitate a lot of technology roadmaps for organisations as a way of getting fast-moving but immature companies thinking along the direction of what is ahead in three to five years, rather than the next three months.

It is win-win. You are building partnerships with organisations and symbiotically helping them grow - not just going out and doing a piece of consultancy and leaving it at that.

What about IT governance, there is a view that a computer science graduate enters the workforce and doesn’t aspire to be on a Board, whereas a law or accounting graduate probably does? What are your thoughts on that?

Fitting in a three to four-year programme at University, notions of IT governance is a difficult process. My own feeling is that you have to mature into understanding the technology side before you can be effective as a person in governance.

It is a bit of a conundrum. I think any ventures that we do at this place, which increase the ability for students to look outside their own discipline, to communicate effectively, to understand the business side of things, such as the Spark programme [student-led initiative to foster entrepreneurship] are extremely valuable.

To my mind the students I see coming out of this place, particularly the postgraduate students, they are intensely aware of the industrial context in which they will be placed and pretty determined to have their say about that. So I am pretty bullish about the future.

What is your view as to how the IT community can encourage more young people to get into the industry?

One of the problems we have is the way that IT has been taught within schools. It has been skills-focused around the use of technology, as opposed to the development of information technology.

It is part of the technology curriculum as opposed to being seen as hard-core science. It creates a negative perception amongst the more academic students.

I have to say that probably affects women more than men. All the research I have seen is that girls at 13 and 14 see IT as a geeky subject that they don’t necessarily want to pursue, despite the fact that the reality is that anyone working in the IT industry needs to collaborate and work effectively in a team. It’s a very human-centric subject to be involved with.

There is this disconnect between what the reality of the subject is and the perception in schools, particularly in that 13 to 14-year-old girls group.

Whether the rise of social networking will influence the perception of what girls have about technology, what computing technology can actually do and whether that’s an aspirational path for them, remains to be seen.

If you’re looking for interventions, the biggest intervention you could have is with those 13 to 14-year-old girls.

If we doubled the number of women coming into our courses that would provide a more gender balance and increase the pool of people that are doing IT subjects.

So just 25 percent of your students are women?

It is about that, even worse in some of the engineering disciplines.

Computer science and engineering are probably the last two subjects which have not really been cracked in terms of getting that flow of women interested in the subjects.

In the other major professional subjects you have seen that correction of the gender imbalance. You need to look around the world to see whether anyone’s doing any better and they’re not.

Probably about the only place with even numbers of male and female students is Italy and nobody quite knows why.

If you look at all the recent job stats, particularly in the US, of the top-10 careers, about eight of them are IT related in terms of ongoing career opportunities. It is where the action is, it is where the demand is.

We have not recovered the numbers of students coming into the discipline that fell off after the tech crash, yet the industry has recovered and there is a strong pull from the industry. None of us are able to supply the pool, it’s a global pool.

If we want to grow the IT tech hub here, we are competing not just locally, we are competing with the Googles and the Microsofts coming down and getting our good students.

Is that a problem?

No. You look at people that go off to some of these institutions, Google and the like and they give an awful lot back to New Zealand along the way. Look at people like Craig Nevill-Manning, who came out of Waikato. He is one of the Google area managers and he spends a significant amount of time down here, helping to grow the discipline and that is great.

This is a global market we are in and look at KEA [Kiwi Expat Association]. They are doing a great job at building brand New Zealand through the social network that we have of expat Kiwis and other countries do that very successfully. Ireland’s a prime example of having done that.

We’re a small country we will always export people, but we also have some very strong attractions too and if you look at the number of skilled IT workers coming into the country it’s enormous.

They are attracted here by the lifestyle and the opportunities that we have here. There shouldn’t be any cringe factor here – we’re trading in both directions.

Tomorrow, John Hosking discusses competition among New Zealand universities and why he is leaving to take up a new role in Australia.

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