University-industry collaboration: Mutually beneficial for businesses and academia

Dhaka,  Monday,   2016-09-23
Published : 23 Sep 2016, 22:07:44

University-industry collaboration: Mutually beneficial for businesses and academia

Helal Uddin Ahmed
It has been observed that the skill levels of workers have not been properly aligned with the stage of growth in Bangladesh, as the country continues to industrialise and undergo structural changes (7th Five Year Plan, 2016). It is in this context that the question of industry-university collaboration arises as a means of enhancing productivity in the industries sector through joint efforts. The subject is a much-discussed and applied topic, especially in the developed Western countries, and has remained a topical issue in the area of higher education at least during the past three decades.

A business or industrial entity must constantly innovate for maintaining competitiveness, e.g. by developing new technologies, new products, processes or markets. Side by side, the universities accumulate extensive know-how, essential for both teaching and research. Although they appear to be different, yet these activities can be complementary; and such collaborations between industries and universities usually lead to mutual benefits. Although industry-academia collaborations can be challenging, the benefits undoubtedly outweigh the costs.  

THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVE: It is an established fact that contributions of science and technology to business-cum-industrial competitiveness can improve industrial employability by addressing specific skills requirements. The university to industry knowledge transfer and research can be of six types. These are focused on missions and objectives; organisational structures and policies; orientation, philosophy and interests; effectiveness of university-industry arrangements and collaboration mechanisms; benefits and costs in university-industry collaboration process; and evaluation of university-industry collaboration performance.

The benefits of university-industry collaborations are as follows: (a) attract additional fund for teaching and research, thereby increasing financial autonomy of universities; (b) attract more government funds if there are budgetary allocations for collaborative research; (c) procurement of or access to latest equipment; (d) exposure of faculties and students to state-of-the-art industrial technology and management systems as well as familiarity with industrial constraints; (e) better interaction for development of academic programmes; (f) better employment prospects for pupils; (g) additional income for academic staff from consultancies; and (g) improved image of universities as contributors to economic growth.

It is therefore evident that industry-oriented research, internships, placements and other works of students and faculties can be mutually beneficial for both the parties. Factors that determine the type of collaboration and its degree of intensity are as follows: research capacity within the university; industrial base of research and development activities; existence of official policies, structures, initiatives and programmes for stimulating collaborative research; tradition of interaction among universities and industries; entrepreneurial culture in the education sector; existence of academic reward system and incentives.

GLOBAL CONTEXT: University-industry collaborations have a longstanding tradition in the developed countries of West Europe and North America. On the other hand, these collaborations have been growing in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, albeit slowly, over the past three decades. These collaborations included informal collaborations; establishment of internal support structures like the industrial liaison office for facilitating technology transfer and continuous education; setting up autonomous support structures like university-industry research centres; commercialising university products by establishing independent support structures like consultancy centres, trading companies and foundations; gearing up national and transnational networking, for example, by creating an affiliates programme for a number of enterprises.

WESTERN EXAMPLE: According to Michael Young, President of the University of Washington, "Innovation is vital to a US economy desperately in need of job creation. University researchers are making breakthroughs across a range of subject areas, like renewable energy, material science, medical technologies, and Big Data. To ensure these innovations grow into job-creating commercial products and services, government, industry and academia must collaborate throughout the innovation process. Doing so will be a game changer for the country".

There are innumerable examples of profitable university-industry collaborations in the USA. For example, Pfizer and the University of California San Diego have built teams of university and industry scientists that combine the best academic knowledge with the drug development expertise of industry to accelerate the development of new drugs for patients. Collaboration agreement between GlaxoSmithKline and the University of Cambridge puts academic scientists into the laboratories of GSK campus in Stevenage - a sure sign that the UK industries see the potentials of joint collaborations.

Benefits often go beyond the partnerships themselves, as shown by delivery of innovative commercial products. Professor Achim Kampker of Aachen University, Germany led a consortium of over 50 companies that designed and built a cheap modular electric vehicle called the StreetScooter. It was a commercial success facilitated by academic skills and inputs. Other examples include the surgical robot called 'Raven' which was an outcome of collaborations of the universities of Washington and California Santa Cruz, robot manufacturers and computer games companies.

BANGLADESH PERSPECTIVE: Several researches have indicated that university-industry collaborations in Bangladesh have had a positive impact, however small, in enhancing the quality of education and industrial products. These collaborations usually exist in the form of collaboration through designing and updating course curricula; internship projects; consultancies; and holding seminars, workshops and conferences.

The Government of Bangladesh (GOB) is striving hard to enhance support for university research as a component of its higher education strategy (2006-26). With the support of Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) of the 'Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project' (HEQEP), university faculties in Bangladesh are conducting advanced research on some of the critical economic challenges in vital sectors of the country like agriculture, environment and health. The universities here are now ready to work with partners including those in the industrial sector for producing tailor-made solutions like new vaccines, better waste management and more productive cropping systems.

However, it can be safely said that university-industry collaboration is a concept yet to gain momentum in Bangladesh. Although there have been intermittent efforts by different quarters, the idea still remains ambiguous to relevant quarters in the universities and industries. A project titled 'University & Industry Alliance', headed by Professor G M Chowdhury, was launched by the University of Dhaka in 2004 on the premises of the famed Institute of Business Administration, with focus on strengthening organisational capacity through management and educational consulting support as well as tailor-made training packages. It was also mandated to provide support to industries in collaboration with other public and private sector partners. But sadly, its 10-year tenure has now ended and no effort is visible to renew its mandate.

In view of the existing scenario in university-industry collaborations as well as its potential in Bangladesh, the government should undertake a programme or project for development of the university-industry relations. It is, however, important that the thrust of the programme meets the needs of the local industries. It should be kept in mind that collaborations can enhance reputation and increase revenue streams of both universities and industries, but the benefits usually accrue to only those who are able to seize the opportunities existing in the socio-economic environment.

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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