Strong, sustainable, integrated and mutually-beneficial partnerships crucial for the university of the future

Arno Meerman, CEO, University-Industry Innovation Network
Dr Sarah Jaber, Senior Consultant, Research Engagement and Commercialisation

Despite being host to world class researchers and universities, Australia is constantly criticised for its declining investment in R&D. Although Australia has always underspent compared to the OECD average, latest figures show a 0.48 percent gap (1.88% vs OECD average of 2.36% of GDP) in terms of gross expenditure on R&D – the largest gap between Australia and the OECD average since 2002. Another major element of concern is the high youth unemployment rates. Where many other OECD countries have been able to reduce this to 6-7 percent, as of January 2019 Australia is still facing an 11.5% youth unemployment rate. With university degrees no longer being a ticket to guaranteed full-time employment, a trend also recognised and highlighted in KPMG’s, Reimagining tertiary education  and, Is tertiary education worth it? reports, there is an increasing gap between the skills graduates possess and those sought by employers.

This inherently calls for greater interaction and integration between education systems and workforce requirements. One way of achieving this is through enhanced collaboration between universities and industry. Over the last few years, Australian universities have been more actively seeking partnerships with industry, for both education and research activities, driven by the government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, to place greater emphasis on research and innovation, and encourage the translation and application of university research. The benefits of enhanced collaboration are multi-fold − from the education perspective, partnerships can provide opportunities to involve industry with developing and implementing university curricula, create internship opportunities, and upskill and train the new generation of employees to bridge the skills gap. From the research perspective, engaging with industry opens up a new avenue of applied research, revenue streams and commercialisation opportunities. This is particularly relevant after recently introduced changes to Research Block Grant (RBG) allocations, which have led universities to more actively look for industry partner to drive growth in Category 2-4 research income.

Although there has been a historic lack of engagement between universities and industry, it is becoming more evident to both parties that in order to address these fundamental issues in the innovation landscape better integration, collaboration and alignment of their activities is required.

These changing attitudes in the university sector and approaches to industry engagement were highlighted in the recently held University-Industry Engagement Conference, jointly organised by the University Industry Innovation Network (UIIN) and University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the issues raised at the conference that are encountered in the Australian landscape were prevalent in other countries – this included the lack of absorptive capacity by small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs), common barriers such as lack of awareness and interest on both sides, and difficulty engaging and sustaining relationships due to the lack of the right people in the right place.

Today, most universities have recognised the importance of relationships with industry, but have not yet taken a full strategic approach towards this. While universities have integrated their teaching and research activities most do not seem to be able to strategically integrate their external engagement activities across their institutions. Engagement with industry remains siloed, with individual research groups or entities across the university establishing relationships with industry for a specific purpose, whether research or education-related, as opposed to a whole-of-university engagement strategy. This is in part related to the relative novelty of the concept and the slow pace of change by universities. In addition, in Australia there has been very little staff mobility between academia and industry, leading to further barriers between the two.

It is apparent that universities need a clearly formulated strategy to engaging with industry and government partners.  An initial step involves understanding what industry needs, and mapping how the university is uniquely placed to service those needs. Universities have to establish a robust framework around engaging with industry, including clear commercial governance and IP frameworks to facilitate engagement, and developing a strategic approach to finding and engaging with industry partners with shared alignment of values and outcomes.

Beyond that, management of partnerships and ensuring they are delivering the desired outcomes to both parties is crucial, but can pose a challenge to institutions with already stretched resources. Being able to track and monitor engagements is critical for an institution-wide industry engagement strategy to succeed, and as a result we are witnessing the increasing use of technology to provide insights into the number and value of collaboration partners towards more strategic management of partnerships.

As part of this, strategies need to address ingrained traditional cultures and behaviours bringing deeper barriers that need to be overcome. While it is one thing to continue to drill into academics that they need to engage more with industry, it is important that the right incentives exist. The notion of metrics and performance measurement was a key issue raised at the conference. Despite a greater urge from universities to engage with industry, many traditional metrics still apply such as publications, citations and rankings. This poses difficulty for academics to focus on non-traditional pursuits, such as developing joint programs with industry or spending time undertaking an industry project, which may detract from their teaching and publication performance, which heavily influence promotion metrics.  Despite that, many universities have begun developing and undertaking joint PhD programs with industry, and undergraduate internship opportunities embedded in industry, as a way to foster cross-pollination. Beyond students, some universities, such as the University of Melbourne, have introduced the concept of industry professors, whereby industry professionals with management experience are embedded within faculties to work closely with academics and help them develop an entrepreneurial mindset.  It is clear that to ensure university-industry collaboration and exchange into the future, flexible career paths that allow researchers to move between the public and private sector and universities, which means working out ways to value industry experience and expertise, are needed. This will also require a re-evaluation of performance metrics and measures of success within universities. Exchange and mobility between universities and industry will show both sides the value of the collaborations and what kind of expertise they can be accessing and benefitting from.

In light of the rapid changes, universities need to consider whether they can continue business as usual operations or whether radical institutional change is required to ensure their sustainability going forward. The conference was evidence of the overwhelming desire for universities and industry to build and develop partnerships and relationships into the future. While there is still a long way to go and barriers to overcome, the fact that such avenues exist for bringing a range of academic and professional staff together to share and develop new ways of working is proof that the university of the future will have strong, sustainable, integrated and mutually-beneficial partnerships with industry.

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