The required skillset of project managers is rapidly changing, and as a result, formal project management education needs to increasingly align with industry, says the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Dr Marco Feris and Prof Rodney J Clarke. Here’s a case study of UOW’s novel teaching approach to increase student employability through six complementary practices.

A report issued in 2021 by the Project Management Institute (PMI) foresaw that organisations will need to fill approximately 2.3 million new project-based roles each year by 2030. This growing need for qualified professionals makes formal project management education increasingly important in many universities.

Tertiary educational institutions are now offering a wide range of programs, including at undergraduate, postgraduate, executive education, and doctorate levels. On the other hand, the predominant industry judgement concerning the traditional project management education is that it is not preparing students to deal with the complexities of the business environment. Among other factors, students:

  • are not exposed to real situations
  • are not encouraged to critical thinking
  • are not properly prepared to deal with conflicts.

Moreover, universities are being forced to adopt a new set of behaviours to deal with an established business model that was disrupted by the advent of COVID-19. So, how can we better design and deliver a project management program that fosters competencies that support real-life problem solving, so students will be better prepared to work in the industry and succeed in the future?


Challenges in project management education


One of the problems in traditional education is the use of textbooks that seem inadequate to the task of preparing students to effectively manage real-life projects. The 2019 edition of Project Management: Achieving Competitive Advantage provides an incomplete concept for project success (pp.37-38), because it does not consider detriments (e.g., the environmental issue of polluting of a river as a result of the project). The 5th edition of Project Management – The Managerial Process features an extremely detailed way to calculate the duration and slack of each task to be performed (pp.258-265), but practitioners often do not plan at this level of detail because any unforeseen event will undermine the calculations and introduce rework.

Diverse needs and interests of students

To complicate matters, today’s student body is diverse with different levels of interest. For example, many students expect their education to focus on raising their employability levels, while those who have previous work experience use it to booster their marks. These kinds of students want to make the most of the academic inputs provided in the classroom and understand how to apply knowledge, tools, and techniques in practice. Many international students are also looking for advice on successfully applying for jobs. There are others that are less likely to focus or put energy into their studies because their priority is migration. Many students are from Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2013), a group that has been characterised as having the ‘highest rate of diagnosed depression and anxiety’ when compared with all other generations. Students with low performance tend to ignore the importance of concrete feedback, while those who get better marks indicate a stronger desire to improve even more their performance.

Approach adopted at the UOW

The approach adopted at UOW started in 2018 and is still ongoing. It was designed to overcome the issues described above and has been implemented in subjects of the Master of Project Management and the Graduate Certificate in Project Leadership and Management, modules in the Bachelor of Engineering, and also in the training of doctoral students. There are three subjects focused on planning, one subject focused on the leadership, and other focused on negotiation. All subjects employ six complementary practices:

  1. Blended learning environment to meet the wide variations in student profiles and their individual learning preferences. Students can attend lectures on campus or online (synchronous learning), access the material and recorded lecturers later (asynchronous learning), and/or attend weekly consultations.
  2. Learn by doing through project-based learning (PBL) to encourage students to interact with lectures, reflect on their outputs and become proactive problem solvers. Sometimes, students can deceive themselves about the quality of their work and become emotional when they perform poorly. When this happens, lecturers have to re-establish a constructive atmosphere within the classroom, while also convincing those students that this kind of behaviour can jeopardise their future careers as it is not tolerated in professional contexts.
  3. Myriad of multidisciplinary pedagogical practices to allow students to become knowledge creators, rather than simply recipients of knowledge. Among other activities, students develop artefacts (e.g., project plans) to deal with expected and unexpected project situations, make oral presentations, perform peer-reviews to promote critical thinking on the outcomes of their decisions, engage with academic papers about teamwork (e.g., trust and cultural differences), study relevant topics, such as SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) and PPAP (Production Part Approval Process), and use relevant commercial software, like MS Project and Minitab.
  4. Continuous improvement to check whether the content and PBL activities continue to be relevant to the needs of the industry every trimester.
  5. Subject delivery by former project managers who as lecturers can effectively mentor our students.
  6. Synergy of teaching and research to identify improvement opportunities in the current teaching approach and help students in delivering better assessments. For example, during 2019 and 2021, students were asked to evaluate the quality of project planning, by completing an online questionnaire. Just as with practitioners, collected data was input into QPLAN, which then generated a report on planning quality improvement suggestions. These reports were uploaded on Moodle, an open-source learning management system, so that students could download their report and then improve their planning from the feedback provided by QPLAN. Then, we analysed data from 65 project plans and found that the scope, time, risks, and integration are all areas to be emphasised in classroom. This resulted in improvements to our teaching practices and materials.



The six complementary practices (source: UOW)



There must be an ongoing dialogue between educational institutions and industry to continue to increase students’ employability. Results from this novel approach maintained the number of enrolments in our programs even during the worst of the pandemic (on average, an 85% attendance level). Students have evaluated these subjects highly. One commented that “…these industry relevant courses have broadened my understanding of diverse methodologies, and equipped me with effective and adaptable tools which has enhanced my professional confidence and ability to take on projects of any scale and complexity”. Companies are recognising that this approach works and have requested that we pass on specific job opportunities to suitable candidates looking to enter the profession.

Nonetheless, no matter how good the quality of education offered by an educational institution, the same needs that drove the changes in our approach apply to each individual’s career. In particular, project managers must have the ability to identify and address their own educational needs over time. This constant lifelong learning, paved with formal and informal experiences, combined with a behavioural skills, hard work and proper people management, creates the conditions to remain competitive long term.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition of Paradigm Shift magazine. Find out more about the AIPM digital magazine and take a look at the full edition.