Spending money to make it

THE old cliche ‘you’ve got to spend money to make money’ has never rung more true than in tertiary education.

As the conduit between the job seeker and the employment market, the education sector retains a unique relationship with economic conditions.

During tough economic conditions, the buzz around the tertiary education sector is on upskilling in preparation for the return of the job market. But with a renewed sense of optimism the baton is changing hands.

According to representatives from two of the state’s leading universities, enrolments will continue to boom but it won’t come from those seeking greener pastures, it’ll be on the return of company HR budgets and staff education incentives.

Director of Southern Cross University’s (SCU) MBA and masters programs, Dr Ian Sims, expects to see a return to employer-funded postgraduate undertakings as happens in strong economic times.

“It’s interesting that we’ve got two distinct forces of action that occur in differing economic conditions,” says Sims.

“When the economy is a little slow there are more people enrolling in self-funded tertiary courses as a way to ensure they are more competitive when the economy starts looking up.

“The reverse of that is when in prosperous times, companies have the financial resources to resume sponsoring staff education. So while we aren’t seeing an abnormal jump in overall enrolments, the indicator is where the funding for students is coming from.”

Professor Keitha Dunstan, head of Bond University’s School of Business, agrees and adds that the specialist executive MBA is often where enrolments spike when corporations recommence staff up-skilling programs.

“Executive MBA conventionally is the program where professional managers who are sponsored by their employers enrol. In 2011, we are expecting the number of enrolments in this specific program to double,” she says.

“Universities offer other programs such as a Masters of Business where entry is not limited to those who have a significant amount of management experience in the workplace. As such, most of the students in those types of degrees are undergraduates who have persisted on for a higher qualification, or people considering a career change into business.

“Where student enrolments are expected to remain consistent in general terms, it’s the increasing popularity of executive MBAs which coincides will a sense of business optimism.”

An ongoing challenge for the tertiary education sector and in particular the business schools Sims and Dunstan manage is staying ahead of an ever evolving business landscape.

The SCU professor says traditional MBAs will remain the benchmark in terms of a diverse business qualification, but more specialist programs are being developed.

“Executive education is going to see the combination of them both,” says Sims.

“One of the newer business programs we offer is a Master of International Sports Management which was created specifically to meet the demand in that growing sector.

“The MBA will continue providing the best option to develop a number of key skills, but students will seek to combine this with a specialised area.

“Steve Price (Queensland rugby league identity) for example is a recent MBA graduate who utilised the International Sports Management program to tailor his degree to suit his area of experience.”

Dunstan cites Bond’s new family business MBA specialty as a prime example of how universities are evolving to meet modern business needs.

“There has always been elements in the MBA that focus on family business, but this is the first time we’ve offered a specialised program in that field,” she says.

“Another one which has become more popular is the finance specialty. A common misconception is that finance-based MBAs have dropped in popularity following the economic crash but in reality that only highlighted how important this sector has become in modern business.

“This shows that people now embarking on an MBA understand how important it is to get an overall understanding of all these specialities.”

Universities certainly remain innovative and fresh when it comes to addressing the changing needs of a new corporate paradigm, but that isn’t to say it’s without its issues.

Dunstan says the continued high value of the Australia dollar presents an immediate challenge.

“A past strength Australia and the Gold Coast has revelled in is that we were very competitive from a pricing standpoint for attracting overseas students,” she says.

“With an exceptionally high Australian dollar it is becoming challenging to maintain the high levels of international students who in the past saw Australia as a real alternative to the United States or Asian universities.”

Dunstan says creating new and innovative education products remains Australia’s point of difference, while Sims reiterates the strength of the Gold Coast as a destination.

“The emphasis for the Gold Coast will always be on the destination,” says Sims.

“Students come to the Gold Coast for its security, high quality education facilities and the chance to study among one of the most popular tourist locations in the world.”

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