Business must do more to support university sector
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Business must do more to support university sector

Greater collaboration and funding on research, teaching needed.

Government policy and universities are being blamed for worsening problems in higher education. Graduate oversupply, weak collaboration between academia and industry, and poor discovery commercialisation are frequent criticisms.

What of industry's role in this mess. Why is Australian business seemingly immune from criticism for its general lack of engagement in the tertiary sector?

Business can work closer with STEM and other university streams.

Business can work closer with STEM and other university streams.

Photo: iStock/Rudyanto Wijaya

Why isn't industry held to account for outsourcing too much learning to universities and failing to collaborate sufficiently with them on research projects?

Do not read this blog as siding with universities. Regular readers know The Venture has highlighted problems in academia for years – long before it became popular to attack universities for shortcomings in teaching, research and industry collaboration.

Employers want graduates to be full, well-rounded, creative people.

Employers want graduates to be full, well-rounded, creative people.

Photo: Ryan Osland
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Industry, too, deserves greater scrutiny on its role in the university sector. Business moans that unis produce graduates with the wrong skills, yet too many corporates – and sometimes the industry bodies that represent them – are barely engaged on course content and structure.

Business points to Australia's poor ranking on academia/industry collaboration, based on OECD data. Universities, of course, are always at fault: they should be there to serve big business at taxpayers' expense, be a free research tool, take all the risk, and let industry take all the intellectual property and value creation on discoveries.

There is scant mention of some companies running a mile when asked to fund a university project. Or believing that unis, like business, must achieve a commercial return so they can fund research that has community impact.

Talk about universities and businesses needing a "shared language" is shorthand for academics needing to become more commercial and think and act like business. Why isn't Australian business expected to learn the language of universities and better understand their needs and work style.

In the US, it is hard to know where academia ends and business begins in industry clusters around leading universities, such is the collaboration. Australia's top 500 companies, collectively, have a small footprint at our campuses by comparison.

It's true that many Australian universities have had a terrible "front door" for industry over the years. Too many companies struggled to know who to deal with at universities, or were frustrated at the pace of academic work or intellectual property rules. But many unis have vastly improved their industry engagement this decade.

Also true is a small group of Australian companies working closely with universities, particularly in engineering, mining and life sciences. CSL, for example, has been co-located at the University of Melbourne's Bio21 Institute for years and benefited from a group of a researchers being immersed in the facility. CSL is a great example of business and university collaboration creating value.

Some of our largest mining companies have funded university facilities, and corporate and individual philanthropy in the sector is growing, off a low base.

Still, there are not nearly enough corporates – or fast-growing emerging companies for that matter – with a consistent presence in our university sector; one that involves corporate researchers or commercialisation experts working side by side with academic researchers, with companies funding all or part of projects and taking a long-term view on discoveries.

Business leaders I have spoken to on this topic always trot out a circular defence: if there were enough commercialisation opportunities at unis, business would fund them; you cannot expect commercial companies to fund university research and work with the sector if there is a low return – or none at all – on that investment.

Plenty of international companies have seen value in Australian university research. Offshore companies, particularly in the US, are more attuned to spotting opportunities in academic research and better skilled at working with universities.

Good luck to them. If Australian companies are too slow to spot and develop outstanding local academic research, all power to international companies that make something of it and fund our universities in return.

Sadly, Australia has too many rent-seeking companies who still think universities should be there to serve industry and bow to big business upon request. No relationship works on those terms and public universities ultimately exist (or should) to serve the community.

Again, this approach toward universities is not true of all Australian companies, but a fair description of the majority, in my view.

A thriving, sustainable Australian economy needs a vibrant university sector. In turn, a vibrant university sector needs deep industry engagement: companies willing to invest in research projects and make a long-term commitment to the sector. Companies that are prepared to co-locate more of their teams to universities facilities, so that their researchers work near academics. There is no better way to collaborate or learn a common research language than by industry and academia working together.

Encouraging more business leaders to teach at university, in a part-time or guest capacity, is needed. If industry wants Australia's future business leaders to have transportable skills in the digital economy, it has to invest more time or money in their education. It cannot outsource the bulk of their education to universities and wash their hands of it.

A more enlightened approach from industry to university research is another opportunity. As universities attempt to "translate" more of their discoveries – through new facilities and collaboration – so too should business make an effort to train staff to work with academics.

Business loves to bag academics for their seemingly slow research process and lack of commercialisation. Too few companies understand or respect the academic research process, its integrity and focus on empirical results, or its timeframes.

Corporate Australia, which has under-invested in growth opportunities for several years and is underperforming (as measured by ASX 100 companies this year), should examine its own research and innovation record before criticising other sectors.

Clearly, more debate is needed on why Australian industry is less engaged with the tertiary sector compared to other OECD countries – considered from both sides of the relationship, not only academia. If business is part of the problem, how it can become part of the solution?

Assigning all of the blame to universities and government is unproductive and unfair.

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