Business insight into more successful collaboration

The Australian
31 Aug 2016

Collaboration between univer­sities, business, government and the community is a major plank in contemporary innovation systems thinking. There is an expectation that stronger interactions and relationships will lead to improved productivity, performance and competitiveness at the firm, regional and national levels.

In the recently released report from the Australian Council of Learned Academies, businesses indicated they were keen to work with universities and research organisations, but the arrangements were not always in place to facilitate the development of relationships. One prominent businessman said that it sometimes needed internal mavericks who “aren’t being driven by monthly reporting requirements” and who were allowed the time to go and invest in a relationship.

There are, however, signs of improvement. The Australian Industry Group, for example, reported that it had good relationships with universities and it was getting better.

But the relationships start at the top. The chief executive sits on university advisory boards (Melbourne and RMIT) and state AI Group directors also are active. AI Group is working with the business deans as part of a broader collaborative agenda.

Interviewees expressed concern that present policy settings inappropriately were encouraging young people to enter university, as a bachelor’s degree was seen as the only path to material success. Students and parents often prefer the prestige of universities, which is in contrast to the German tertiary education system where higher education and vocational education and training have similar status.

The demand-driven system is seen as encouraging universities to maximise their enrolment intakes, with a result that graduates are finding it difficult to get jobs in the professions on which they had set their sights. The demand-driven system has poured a lot of money into universities, but neither they nor the government has looked seriously at the implications, particularly in terms of the direction of demand. Under the demand-driven model there are no quotas for discipline clusters and students study whatever they like if a university is willing to take them. There is a view that this abdicates responsibility for developing nation-building skills to individual whim.

Interviewees emphasised that the vocational sector continued to play a key role in training people in a range of technical professions and occupations, notably in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics area. The vocational education system is considered to be just one of a few in the world where a trainee is assessed by their acquisition of competencies relevant to a field of skilled specialisation. Moreover, TAFEs tend to have strong industry interfaces and, in addition to delivering national industry training packages, offer a range of bespoke training courses and advice in specific areas of technology.

Most companies experienced in working with universities tend to say they don’t want to dictate curriculum or research but want universities to take account of the issues they face. In other words, they don’t see universities as contractors but as organisations interested in their business. Successful collaborations are not dictated by one side or the other but are based on discussion, engagement and, above all, trust.

In the past there was a tendency for a university to see its role as finished when students graduated. But that doesn’t cut it any more for business. Some universities are regarded as much smarter in producing specialists to meet the needs of specific sectors (in mining and energy, for example). And they are more aware of the need to develop curriculums around industry requirements and soft skills. But the bottom line is that any course requires enough students to be viable.

There was a general view coming from the interviews that business did not have a problem about the knowledge and technical skills for innovation that came out of the tertiary education system.

However, businesses place a priority on workplace employability skills. In a rapidly changing technology environment there is a view that technical skills can be acquired or updated on the job, particularly where technical activity is largely driven by software.

There is a category of people who are going through the tertiary education system now, in their 20s to early 30s, who may need training across a career or for all of their life. Interviewees pointed to a gap in post-business school training, a continuous journey of career training activity that is fostered by the employers and employees.

There is also a concern that the chief scientist’s role does not extend far enough in developing skills in students beyond STEM and whether this is an issue that gets picked in the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

The matter of developing closer relationships between business and tertiary education institutions is global in its orientation.

Fortunately, there has been a move in the discussion of relationships from a transactional focus on licensing intellectual property as a way of generating income for a university, to a more sophisticated approach to the complex pattern of university-business interactions and models and methods for building mutually beneficial collaborations in both teaching and research.

John H. Howard is adjunct professor at UTS Business School and managing director of Howard Partners.