It's time to start producing graduates that business can use

There's currently a disconnect between what universities teach and what industry needs. Closer collaboration between academia and business is vital to producing work-ready graduates.

Johannesburg, 08 Aug 2018
Read time 3min 30sec
Murray de Villiers, Senior Manager: Global Academic Programmes, SAS.
Murray de Villiers, Senior Manager: Global Academic Programmes, SAS.

While any university student who has since gone into full-time employment will tell you that there is a clear difference between what you are taught and what is expected of you in the real world, nowhere is this disconnect more obvious than in the field of data science.

According to Murray de Villiers, Senior Manager: Global Academic Programmes at SAS, one of the biggest challenges in this field is that universities have a tendency to teach degrees that are very specialised in a single area.

"While this means that such graduates are experts in their given arena, the fact is that industry can do very little with such knowledge. What is really required in the business world are people who know a reasonable amount about everything. In effect, we require jacks of all trades, rather than specialists in a single field," he explains.

"Unfortunately, tertiary institutes tend to create specialists because they push their people to publish papers relating to their chosen subjects, and this obviously requires them to have a specialised knowledge. Universities get paid for each paper published in a peer-reviewed publication, so it makes sense from their perspective. However, what they end up doing is training academics, who are of limited use to industry."

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of bursaries provided by the government are also given to students for very specialised studies. The theory goes, explains De Villiers, that someone studying something like astrophysics will, because of their high level of learning, be in demand from organisations like those in the financial services sector.

"Unfortunately, having high level knowledge like this doesn't mean you have any business acumen, and without such skills, you are going to have a real problem if a bank employs you," he adds.

"The trouble this causes for industry is that if they hire someone like this, they then need to spend an additional 12-24 months turning what is essentially an academic into someone who can be of use to the business. This is good for neither the organisation nor the employee."

He points out that university advisory boards are partly to blame, as they often fail to ask industry people for their inputs. This allows the universities to convince themselves that what they are doing is relevant, but is ultimately a myopic and inwardly focused approach.

"There's no doubt that these institutions can train brilliant people who make wonderful discoveries at an academic level, but they are far less effective at developing people who are ready for the real world."

"What we need is for them to get industry more closely involved in developing relevant university programmes and ensuring the curriculum is structured to ensure graduates come out with the necessary skills to succeed in the working world. This means that the universities need to reach out to industry, through their advisory boards, and bring together industry people and university leaders, in order to develop a joint collaborative approach that will produce the graduates industry requires."

This is critical, continues De Villiers because South Africa is a developing economy, meaning it has an even greater need for people with applied industry knowledge, and it doesn't have the luxury of time to take academics and turn them into effective workers.

"It is critical that tertiary institutions start producing graduates who have broad-based knowledge and who understand processes, can formulate answers to problems, and who are also capable of explaining such answers to management, in a language they understand.

"Analytics is an extremely powerful tool for businesses in the real world, and it is thus vital that industry has access to people with experience in multiple fields, and who can conduct the relevant analysis and ensure that the required answers are provided," he concludes.

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