Corporate highs: The US P-TECH model for schools in Australia?


This article is by Nick Kelly, Research Fellow at University of Southern Queensland. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

analysis Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited a P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early Career High) school in New York last week, hinting it’s a model of education we should consider implementing in Australia. The school, partly funded by IBM and training students to suit the company’s needs, is different to anything we have in Australia. While the P-TECH model would be feasible here, the model risks confusing economic needs with educational ones.

The approach taken by P-TECH has generated a lot of interest since it was opened in 2011. It already has a name, the P-TECH model, and is being copied in cities around the US. New York State, for example, has developed partnerships for a further 16 schools like the original.

The P-TECH model sounds a little confusing at first: both private and public money is used to fund high schools that also give university degrees. P-TECH schools are situated in low socio-economic areas and have a stated aim of helping students to become “job ready” for a particular sector of employment that has a shortage of workers. Existing schools in the US have focused on training for the technology sector and new schools are also looking to train workers for manufacturing and health care.

The school that Abbott visited, for example, was funded by the NYC Department of Education, the City University of New York and the private company IBM. The school goes for two years beyond the equivalent of our Year 12. Graduates receive corporate mentoring during their study, an associate degree in technology (similar to a diploma) upon graduation, as well as a job interview with IBM.

Politicians in particular are big proponents of the P-TECH model because it looks like a win-win situation. The nation’s economy gets a supply of workers in sectors where there are perceived shortages. The private business entering into the partnership gets positive publicity and a supply of qualified labour. The state gets to have the cost of education significantly subsidised by private enterprise. And the student gets a qualification for the cost of just two years’ extra study.

While the ideas in these schools are not new, their integration in the P-TECH model is generating a buzz in the US to the point that the latest version in Chicago made the front page of TIME magazine. The question is now being asked whether the model might have a place in Australia.

While we don’t have anything like the culture of philanthropy seen in the US, businesses see this model as much more of an investment (in publicity, recruitment and training) than charity. There would likely be interested parties, especially given the huge positive coverage received by IBM in the US.

The challenge for implementing these schools is in the grey area they occupy between high schools and universities. In Australia, only accredited institutions can award degrees. Any P-TECH type school would require either accreditation or exemption – this would be difficult for a school to obtain without significant political willpower.

Perhaps more to the point, it is difficult to see the need for schools that give degrees in Australia, where the separation of school and further education still serves the needs of both students and the national interest.

We’ve been talking about a new type of school, yet still have not mentioned educational value. This is partly because the first cohort at P-TECH hasn’t graduated yet so not much is known about outcomes. Yet we can consider likely implications.

Those arguing for these schools point out the advantages to students in gaining employment and higher starting salaries. This comes from an unstated belief that the goal of education is to create graduates who meet the economic needs of the country, and that those graduates can thus fulfil their own need for gainful employment. From this perspective there is no problem with inclusion of private companies in educational partnerships.

The view of the PM is typical of this notion of education:

What we want to do is ensure that youngsters are getting an education which is relevant to their needs and that we are investing in education and training systems that are going to have appropriate economic pay-offs for our country.

What this perspective neglects is that the next generation has needs much broader than gaining employment and being a part of the economic life of the country. For example, they need to leave school with the ability to think critically, to have the broad range of skills for leading a fulfilling and creative life – no matter their circumstances. This view is summed up by Richard Shaull in his foreword to educational theorist Paulo Freire’s book:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

The P-TECH schools, with their involvement of the private sector and focus upon vocational training, are likely to be a step backwards in achieving this. It is entirely possible for these schools to succeed in their own terms and achieve high rates of graduate employment, yet still to fail their students.

Nick Kelly does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation


  1. I’ve always found it interesting how narrowly focused Australian education is on meeting specific economic outcomes – that is, producing graduates that fit the neat cookie cutter mold of available jobs. Universities shutdown so-called unprofitable courses with low enrolment numbers and little or difficult employment pathways, to the great detriment of broader knowledge and education – universities should be concerned about providing courses that cover the breadth of higher education, to challenge and enlighten students, not become a factory churning out worker bees in their interchangeable thousands. We already have institutions designed for that purpose – they’re called technical colleges. Oh right – lots of Australian Universities *used to be* technical colleges. Of course.

    The world has been dragged kicking and screaming into the future by science that ultimately springs from fundamental research which for the most part had no obvious utility or application to what was widely understood or being done at that time. We are enlightened and inspired by art and creative exploration that has absolutely zero commercial value prior to its existence. Australia has very very little hope of producing graduates capable of bleeding edge research or compelling artistic movements because of the strong capitalist focus and extremely conservative mindset plaguing our entire education system.

    And before people start waving examples of scientific or artistic brilliance as some kind of rationalisation for the mediocre educational status quo, yes there are such examples and those people have excelled and achieved what they have *despite* the system, not because of it, making them all the more brilliant.

    • It’s really just a continuation of… as Sugata Mitra put it:

      a bit of history: to keep the world’s military-industrial machine running at the zenith of the British Empire, Victorians assembled an education system to mass-produce workers with identical skills. Plucked from the classroom and plugged instantly into the system, citizens were churned through an educational factory engineered for maximum productivity.

      Like most things designed by the Victorians, it was a robust system. It worked. Schools, in a sense, manufactured generations of workers for an industrial age.

      So by understanding that we live in an economy, not a society, and that we aren’t people, we are workers, it’s easy to see how we’ve come to structure our educational system that way. We will continue to be worker ants in the great colony known as the economy because we value the dollar more than the idea, and often we value the dollar more than what we can actually purchase with it.

      Unfortunate that it is.

      • Thanks for the quote. Never heard of Sugata Mitra, you’ve probably just provided me with months of enlightening reading (usually when I find a of writer interest it leads to a great deal more which may take months to years to explore). Thanks very much! :-)

  2. Educating conformists or individuals who are capable of questioning what is truly best for them? Politicians wet dream or nightmare.
    I’ve no doubt Mr Abbot was excited by the former idea, but even then, does he have any track record of actually implementing anything? Seems all he does is harp on about Labour’s shortcomings, has noone told him he won the election? It’s all His Fault now.

    Job relevant education sounds like an imminently practical idea, as long as stated above, it still produces a well rounded adaptive individual.
    Institutional education often follows what is easiest for the lecturers concerned rather than best suited to the students job prospects. Eg. Studying COBOL in the mid 90’s rather than C++. All made moot by the impact of Keatings recession we had to have, a few years of graduates unable to find employment in fields they spent several years studying. Who do you hire, the fresh graduate or the one with 3 year old qualification and no experience. (a personal gripe, about to be experienced afresh by current graduates)

    • It sounds practical, but it’s far from it. Specialisation should be developed on the job, not in a course.

      You know what this is really about?

      Employers don’t want to train graduates.

      Because there’s a cost involved, in both time and money. It’s a big investment, and it can be fairly high risk. So they’re trying to push the cost on to the educational institution, who passes it on to the taxpayer and/or the student/future worker.

      Never mind that it is the risk they should be taking because they’re the ones who are going to profit from it.

      Employers won’t employ the under-skilled, because of their lack of skills, but won’t invest in them to bring their skills up. I mean you can either train someone to meet your organisation’s needs, or you can hire someone that is a standardised robotic worker unit, now with specialties in programming! Both result in (nominally) the same outcome. Which of them is cheaper though, right?

      The same employers will hire from overseas, because, you know, still cheaper to pay someone to come here than it is to train someone up from scratch.

      But if a student takes the same risk – for example, she studies geophysics for five years and racks up a big HECS debt – yet by the time she graduates, there are no jobs in geophysics. Well that’s her time and her money she’s spent, to no one’s benefit. She’s in a specialised job with no possibility of employment in her field of specialisation, so what does she do, she gets a job at Woolworths for little over minimum wage. All those years of advanced maths, physics and geoscience have done her well, huh? But who cares about her, as long as the businesses don’t lose?

      But enough complaining, let’s talk about solutions. If employers want specific skills out of their employees but don’t want to train in-house (why?), then they should provide input into short courses for which they pay for and that they can send their workers to. How much of a university or TAFE education does someone actually use in their job?

      I really think we need to start having a discussion about shifting part of the burden of education and training back onto employers.

  3. Any corporates who funded such colleges would be looking after their own interests above everything else.

    Imagine a college funded by Microsoft, for example. What IT skills do you think they’d be teaching there? Linux Administration? Desktop Design on the Macintosh?

    It would be corporate brainwashing, pure and simple.

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