Training ourselves to learn for the future

Planning for the knowledge economy means reshaping our idea of what education means

Planning for the knowledge economy means reshaping our idea of what education means Our Knowledge Economy special issue (November 8) has created a few waves — lots of feedback from a lot of different corners. Education is perhaps the biggest talking point — people either want to know just what drug it is NZ Inc’s John Blackham has been taking ("children to leave school at nine years old? Absurd!") or how we should address funding for tertiary institutions. There are two distinct areas that I think should be looked at: education versus training and education for life, and they’re not unrelated. Education is often seen as something that stops when you leave school. I heard one chap disparaging Shakespeare and logarithms as useless — "I haven’t used either of them since I left school and look at me!" — but I think he’s confusing schools as places of learning with schools as places of training. Nobody’s suggesting schools should stop teaching children about art and literature simply because it’s not relevant to their daily lives as adults — consider how many adults actually play sports, yet that’s a huge part of school life — because art and literature fall into the theoretical world of education. Education is different from training. It has to be. You can be trained in practical things like how to change a tyre or fly a plane and so on. It’s more about a particular skill, whereas education is more about the underlying stuff of life. It’s tricky, and feel free to disagree, but I think the distinction is there. Education and training must co-exist, yet when we leave school — or university or polytech — that’s it as far as education goes. From then on we’re given training in particular job-related areas, or we cease learning altogether. The idea that education only happens in an institution is one we have to challenge and break down, otherwise we will never value education as strongly as we should and we’ll never make it as a knowledge economy. Here in the IDG office we’ve been arguing about just these sorts of issues and one discussion came to some interesting conclusions that I’m going to share with you. This isn’t a formal position statement from the company, just the musings of a handful of lads. See what you think. In the past 10 years we’ve switched emphasis from pure research to applied research, which has led to a drop in the number of jobs in the science sector and a perception, rightly or wrongly, that you can’t make money as a scientist in New Zealand. Take the agriculture sector — a number of the advances made in the past hundred years came from pure research, usually at governmental level. Those breakthroughs were then turned into practical applications and we managed to beat the opposition to market with key developments. These days we concentrate on the development side to the detriment of the pure research and we end up reacting to the market forces instead of driving them. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a news story on the TV this year where an Australian researcher has made a breakthrough of some kind, be it in cancer research, physics or whatever. New Zealand breakthroughs are few and far between it seems. That leads to the second conclusion — we need to pay people more. That may sound like something only an employee would say, but the argument goes like this: we’re now in a global market. If you want to hire someone to run your network, you’re competing for staff with every other company in the world that wants to hire a network administrator. You’re competing for staff with companies in the US, UK, Germany, India, Uzbekistan and even Australia. If you think you’re paying the market rate, you’re not looking at the actual market and it’s only going to get worse. We need to pay these people to stay — in this free market world of ours, having lovely scenery isn’t enough of a hiring incentive. Besides paying more and putting the emphasis on quality means we can draw big companies to New Zealand instead of having those companies drawing our staff offshore. Take Binary Research — a tiny company that came up with a world-class product, Ghost, here in New Zealand. But in order to take it to the next level it had to look offshore for investment, in this case Symantec, which bought the product and is now selling it all over the world. Why couldn’t we get Symantec to come here to New Zealand and continue developing the product here, and perhaps build on that foundation? It could base its next anti-virus centre here or expand the development side of Binary into an R&D centre. Development work on Ghost is based here in New Zealand but that’s as far as it goes — why can’t we build on that? The final point we reached was that education is too costly for many New Zealanders and that has to stop. Students need to know the worth of their course and I would not like to see a return to the days where you could loiter at university for years doing a degree in getting drunk and falling down, but there’s a fine line between making students pay for their education and making the education so costly they shy away from courses because of it. I think we’ve crossed that and we need to pull back before it’s too late. An entire generation of students with debt is going to create quite a blip on the economic progress chart once they all try buying houses or investing their income, if they even choose to stay here. We have a huge brain drain at the moment, let’s not make it worse. Let me know what you think. Paul Brislen is a Computerworld reporter and regular columnist, phone: 0-9-377 9902. For publication copy letters to cw_letters@idg.co.nz.

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