TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: IBM's academic ambitions

The tech giant's long running partnership with the University of Ballarat has so far delivered the goods but will it endure the shift towards online education?

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of IBM?

Big Data? Supercomputers? Outsourcing? Start-ups? Smart Cities? And the list goes on.

Indeed, it's hard to pinpoint how many activities the tech titan involves itself with in any given year. But here’s one that you might not have guessed - education.

IBM is intrinsically involved in the international higher education scene, working with over 6000 universities worldwide. However, the level of its involvement varies from school to school. In some cases IBM simply offers advice while in others it’s recruiting the best graduates, advising the curriculum and providing product training to students.

Some may argue that this manoeuvre is simply a form of marketing - a means of conditioning students towards the company’s brand and products before they hit the workplace. However, in the case of IBM’s relationship with University of Ballarat (UB) the partnership is more than just about cementing a recruitment channel. Student work experience has been integrated into IBM’s operations in Ballarat, with some of UB’s brightest helping the tech company to create and maintain products like the automatic check-in kiosks used by Qantas and Jetstar.

Building the partnership

The seeds of the partnerships were sown when IBM set up shop at the UB’s budding technology park in 1995, as a result of winning significant tenure to manage the data centres of VicRoads and the Public Transport Authority. Over time IBM was keen to expand its operations in Ballarat, but didn’t want to increase its overheads. Meanwhile, the university was looking to partner with IBM to bolster the reputation of its budding IT degrees.

IBM and UB teamed up in 2001 to launch a degree that guaranteed its IT students work with the tech giant as part of their course. It was a win-win for all concerned. Student labour subsidised IBM’s costs, while the university was able to promote itself as a gateway into working for a major IT company. The agreement was solidified in 2003, when IBM opened another division of its business on-campus at the Mt Helens site.

Mal Vallance, Director of the University of Ballarat Technology Park, says that IBM’s involvement with the university provided the "critical mass” it needed to grow its IT programs. He also said that the company has helped in keeping the university’s curriculum and research in line with the demands of the business tech world.

"The school would have looked very different if it [IBM] wasn’t here,” Vallance says.

"We estimate that around half of IBM’s workforce [in Ballarat] are either graduates or students of the university.”

'Earn as you Learn'

Jobs are an important part of the equation and there are a couple of avenues in which UB students can work for the company while studying.

The most notable one is the ‘Earn as you Learn’ program, which sees IT students earn around $8000 per year, over two years as they work for the company as part of their Information Technology (professional practice) degree. The course guarantees students a job at IBM at the end of their four year course.

In fact, IBM recruits a vast amount of its graduates from UB. The company said that around 80 per cent of IT grads end up working for the company in either its Melbourne, Sydney or Ballarat offices.

IBM has also found a way to harness those students who are not studying IT; it offers them casual jobs in its on-campus customer help centre. Again, it’s another win-win. Students need flexible part-time work to sustain their studies and IBM needs workers who able to manage the flexible hours that a help centre requires. However, unlike their IT educated counterparts, these jobs aren’t guaranteed to students. They need to apply for them like any other part time job.

The online onslaught

For now, both parties and the students at UB are benefiting from the arrangement. But will this partnership hold out for the long-term given the drastic shifts facing our higher education sector?

To some extent, the partnership works as long as students come to UB and pursue the degree on-campus. That’s not necessarily a straightforward proposition given the university’s regional setting and the growing shift towards online learning.

The university recently suffered a 13 per cent decline in how many Victorian students considered it as a first preference for enrolment. In the same poll its major metropolitan rivals, University of Melbourne and Monash University, both received a slight boost in their preferences.

Combine this with ongoing debate around the future of online learning, speculation on the future business models of universities and the potential impact of Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) revolution, and it becomes difficult to predict what universities will look like in the next 10 years.

Full steam ahead

Such predictions however, haven’t put a dampener on IBM and UB's outlook on their relationship.

"While there is a trend towards students embarking upon online studies, the reality is that most online activity is concerned with students enrolling in specific units of study and not entire degree,” Vallance says.

"Further, the reality is that for many courses [such as technical and applied studies] there will always be a requirement for a significant amount of on campus instruction,” he added.

An IBM spokeswoman welcomed the shift towards online education, but said that it wouldn’t detract from the university’s on-campus offering.

"The courses sponsored by IBM will remain attractive to those students who are looking to gain practical experience and training from physically working in a team environment,” the spokeswomen said.

"The social and mental stimulation of being on campus, as well as the experience of working on-site on projects like the Qantas/Jetstar kiosks are important and valuable aspects of the IBM courses – for these reasons they are attractive to students who are looking for courses that combine the practical with the theoretical.”

Uncertainty in the higher education space also hasn’t stopped IBM from boldly marching forward with its university strategy. Just last month the company launched yet another academic endeavour - a centre of Big Data excellence in partnership with Melbourne’s Deakin University.

In addition, the company is set to launch another partnership - similar to what it has with UB - with Unitec, a TAFE in Auckland, New Zealand.

As IBM moves to further align itself with the higher education scene, it will be interesting to see how IBM’s relationship with UB and other academic institutions evolves as technology redefines what it means to go to university.

Harrison Polites travelled to IBM’s Ballarat Delivery Centre as guest of IBM.