Fit for intended use--a manufacturing metaphor applied to international business students and learning outcomes.

Author:Nagy, Judy
 
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INTRODUCTION

It is no secret that contemporary tertiary education in Australia is significantly reliant on international student fee income in a competitive market. Accordingly, the need to attract fee paying students involves strategies for increasing competitive advantage, new course structures, flexible learning initiatives and marketing. However Jackling (1) has found that employers are reluctant to employ graduate international students in the accounting field as they consider them to lack the skills required to effectively meet employment needs. This paper seeks to focus the spotlight on the role of academics/universities in ensuring that graduates have the skills necessary for employment as part of the education process.

The reluctance by employers to employ graduate international students suggests that as student diversity increases there is a greater need for strategies that ensure students have the capacity to attain the skills valued by employers. Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, in a discussion paper dated July 2005, asked: 'So what is a university for? The answer depends on time and circumstance'. He suggests that the 'postmodern university plays a mix of roles--education and knowledge transfer, development of new ideas, a place for scholarly work, intellectual training, social critique and community engagement, yet also a social portal for credentials, certification and access to careers'. (2)

Recognising that universities are 'for' a complex range of purposes this discussion paper concentrates on the latter part of Davis's statement, 'a social portal for credentials, certification and access to careers', with emphasis on the employability of graduating international business students'. While the agenda of universities has been significantly captured in recent decades by the vocational needs of the accounting (and other) profession(s), for international students this notion of capture has been reinforced by recent changes to migration rules. From September 2007 international students must have work experience in their nominated skilled occupation for at least twelve months before applying for permanent residency. Though Boyce suggests that not all accounting students end up working in the accounting profession or any form of accounting job (3) the need for discipline employment by international students before seeking permanent residency will no doubt reinforce the employability priorities for learning.

In-camera discussions with academic colleagues concerning the preparedness of international students for Australian postgraduate education indicate that those who teach generally bear the brunt of the consequences associated with rising numbers of international students. It is a reflective exercise to voice (print) some of my own impressions and those of many colleagues about this state of affairs. But it is with a degree of hesitation that I have used a process orientated 'fitness for purpose' paradigm to consider whether students are able to attain the characteristics valued by employers. The hesitation arises from the likely criticism that may ensue as a consequence of the dehumanisation of the education process. However, the manufacturing analogy seems to be appropriate to the higher education environment that has evolved in Australia over the last 10 years, particularly with the influx of international students.

The desire of universities to attract lucrative fee paying international students means that students can shop around for the blend of cost, quality and flexibility offered to suit their individual circumstances. Recent references to corporate universities, enterprise universities, degree factories, educational products, students as consumers, students as customers, academics 'delivering' material to students and employers recruiting the products of tertiary institutions (4) all create mental images of a manufacturing process.

Borrowing from Wolnizer's (5) use of manufacturing metaphors in an audit context, I have often wondered whether diversity in the characteristics of the 'raw material' of commencing postgraduate students damages the potential for transformation into 'useable product'. In manufacturing, design and output of manufacturing processes need to be carefully planned to ensure that all work is consistently accurate. Quality improvements are engineered by ensuring that parts and raw materials conform to specifications in a way that allows for mass production. Tight specification allows for deviations from standards to be identified as poor quality and also permits comparison of qualities across time periods to see if the qualities of outputs are maintained.

However, this may not be possible in the context of post-graduate higher education, as student entry requirements seem to embody increasingly clever mechanisms for admission and thus questionable entry standards. The influx of students from alternative pathways, recognition of prior learning, advanced standing (the granting of credit for previous studies that closely match subjects included in programs) and the recognition of growing numbers of undergraduate programs from around the world, all contribute to these questionable entry standards.

In the 1974 edition of Juran's Quality Control Handbook (6) the concept of 'fitness for use' was first introduced to describe the extent to which a product (or service) successfully served the purpose of the user. This concept introduced the notion that the user was the one who would judge or evaluate quality in any context. Quality is whatever the user perceives it to be and, 'fitness for use denotes the extent to which the product successfully serves the purposes of the user'. (7)

As Australian tertiary institutions expand into new markets, post-graduate students enter universities bringing with them a range of past pedagogical experiences, English language capacities and competencies associated with learning styles of source countries. Using the manufacturing analogy above, non-standard raw materials are unlikely to generate a quality product unless superior production processes are applied. This would recognise the entry-level deficiencies and deliberately aspire to rectify the deficiencies by applying superior processes. This places the burden on academics to rectify anomalies created by recruitment strategies so that students can attain the requisite skills for success.

THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT

As a front-line academic in a Business and Law Faculty with experience in both undergraduate and post-graduate subjects, it is my experience that classes are dominated by international students, often around eighty per cent. Statistics from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations from 2000 to 2006, consistently show that the majority of international students will study management and commerce subjects and thus any changes in the markets of student origin have immediate consequences for business academics. Over the last ten years the origin of these students has changed from southeast Asian and Chinese students, to incorporate a growing proportion of students from...

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