The New Engineer

Citation: This is article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Corporate universities&emdash;for better or worse?', Engineers Australia, October 1999, p. 70.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Worldwide the phenomenon of corporate universities is growing. Originally 'corporate university' was a euphemistic name given to corporate training institutions such as McDonald's Hamburger University, Volvo University and Disney University. However in recent years such training institutions have sought to offer their employees accredited degrees for their training through partnerships with real universities. But are these 'real' universities, which are suffering from declining government funding, selling off their integrity, independence and educational standards to the highest bidder?

Motorola University is a good example of the trend and is seeking to be able to offer accredited degrees. Its 'university' has 400 full-time faculty, 800 part-time teachers in 19 countries and over 100,000 students a year, one in five of whom are from other companies. Daimler Chrysler is planning a partnership with various universities worldwide including Harvard in the US, Insead in Paris, Hong Kong University and IMD in Lausanne.

In the UK, British Aerospace is proposing to spend more than £2 billion over the next decade, which would make it one of the country's richest universities. This virtual university (without a campus or buildings) was launched in 1998 and involves partnerships with established universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

In Australia, Deakin University has 40,000 enrolments in corporate courses compared to 28,000 in regular courses. Recently it teamed up with Coles Supermarket chain to establish the Coles Institute to train all levels of Coles 55,000 workforce, from checkout scanners to executives. The Coles Institute will have official Deakin University accreditation. The Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs has praised the initiative as "the way of the future" and Deakin is hoping to form similar joint ventures with insurance, automobile and oil industry companies.

Melbourne University Private has been established by Melbourne University. It is run as a private company, with funding from companies such as Ford Australia, Mobil Oil, Shell Australia and WMC (previously Western Mining Corporation). Its schools include the Melbourne School of Energy and Environment and the Melbourne School of Communications, Multimedia and Information Technology and these will offer university courses, tailored to corporate needs. Melbourne University Private will be relying on the reputation for academic excellence of Melbourne University to ensure its degrees and certificates are of value: "The quality and integrity of the Melbourne brand is one of our greatest assets". However, one wonders how intellectually rigorous courses on the environment will be if they are tailored to corporate requirements.

A 1999 survey of corporate universities found that more than 50 percent of corporate universities surveyed worldwide were planning to use existing or future partnerships with accredited universities to enable them to be able to grant degrees in the fields of business/management, engineering/technical, computer science and finance/accounting. About two thirds of those surveyed already had some sort of alliance with an undergraduate university.

Jeanne Meister, a US consultant on setting up corporate universities, claims that corporate universities have advantages to employers over normal university education because "they can ensure that everything is taught according to the strategies of the organisation. Corporations want tighter control of the learning process and outcomes... Companies are focusing on how educational programmes will further their corporate strategies and objectives." Meister points out that the corporate culture-the values of the corporation and "the behaviours that go along with those values"-is an important element of courses in a corporate university.

However others believe that this trend is not helping universities to survive but rather destroying them. Lawrence Soley, author of Leasing the Ivory Tower, suggests that it is getting to the stage where state facilities are being provided to private companies to train future employees and that these companies could in future be deciding which classes should be taught. Stanley Aronowitz in Dollars and Sense magazine argues, "As long as they get the cash, desperate administrators are eager to have their university reflect the whims of individuals and the interests of corporations."

Whilst there is inevitably some overlap, training is about giving a person the skills and knowledge to carry out a particular occupation, education is more than this. The purpose of education is to foster independent learning and critical thinking not to condition a person to fit into a specific corporate culture.