Open Universities pushes distance education to IT majors

Peoplebank partnership first of "many" as IT companies work to combat looming skills shortage

Open Universities Australia executive director of operations, Michelle Beveridge

Open Universities Australia executive director of operations, Michelle Beveridge

Online education provider Open Universities Australia is in talks to initiate corporate partnerships with the likes of IBM, HP and other major IT companies in a bid to combat the declining number of qualified IT personnel in the Australian market.

Discussions are in “early days” according to the institution’s executive director of operations, Michelle Beveridge, but she said recent wins with local IT companies would likely lead to wider partnerships.

IT recruiter Peoplebank will become Open Universities Australia’s 16th corporate customer when it launches an in-house program for 3000 staff and their families in March. The agreement will provide eligible entrants with access to the education institution’s units, vouchers for textbook purchases, limited free access to online tutorial programs and priority support service.

Eligible staff and families can undertake specific IT courses and ultimately entire degrees at their choosing. The partnership will provide education to about 15 per cent of the company’s workforce and their families, Beveridge said, and would be paid for by Peoplebank.

“[Peoplebank are] reaching out to all of those people to keep them engaged with the company when they’re working at different sites all the time,” Beveridge said. “They’re always looking for employee benefit schemes or something they can offer which are that little bit different.”

The recruiter has attempted to alleviate its cost, however, urging the Federal Government to help subsidise the program and financially assist other companies which provide similar services to their IT staff. In a letter to the federal minister for tertiary education, skills, jobs and workplace relations, Senator Chris Evans, Peoplebank chief executiv,e Peter Acheson, said the declining number of IT graduates was a worrying trend for the Australian ICT industry and long-term contractors, many of which did not have the opportunity to further their skills.

CIO contacted the minister for comment, but did not receive a response at the time of writing.

Organisations such as the Australian Defence Force, NAB, Westpac, Melbourne IT and Oakton already provide similar education through Open Universities Australia.

Beveridge said the institution hoped the growing number of corporate partners would convince larger companies in the ICT industry to adopt a similar approach for its employees, moving away from offering simply IT accreditation and qualifications.

“I think this is the first of many we’ll see in the ICT industry,” she said. “From this, we’ll start talking to the big firms... leading as an example to say ‘look, this is something you should be offering to the ICT professionals as a way of going through’.”

Employment statistics released by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in July last year show the number vacancies in the ICT industry had begun to climb for the first time since the economic downturn, with increases of up to 43 per cent in some states between June 2009 and 2010. The number of students completing undergraduate degrees in ICT in Australia had also dropped significantly, from a height of 9494 graduates in 2002, to just 4876 graduates in 2008.

At the same time, however, the department had noted the number of ICT specialisations on notice for national shortages had dropped from a total 16 in 2007 to two in 2009.

The looming skills shortage forecast by employers and recruiting firms has led to speculation that ICT staff could demand higher salaries, but some reports have warned workers should not become complacent during the period.

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Tags peoplebankcareersMichelle Beveridgeit skillsOpen Universities Australia

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