Bridging the industry-academia gap in Australia

A recent OECD report shows Australia is trailing behind in active collaboration between universities and business.

History shows that the world has not faced such extensive health, environmental, social and economic challenges as the present time. Rising above all is the pandemic, with the deadly virus, COVID-19, refusing to be vanquished, blanketing the whole world with its lethal impact, sickening millions, killing thousands, and restricting the global economy, as a second wave of the disease surges.

Stifled but not crushed, are the other challenges, striking different countries in different ways. The dynamics in Australia are stricken by droughts and bushfires, bringing in their wake, chronic disease, crippling poverty, income inequality and racial bias. In such a critical equation, the universities, the centers of learning in a country, play a significant role as anchor institutions, supporting the stricken communities. They need to collaborate with society in carrying out research and discovering ways to bounce back, rather than undertaking such studies on behalf of society. And this boils down to initiating and nurturing relationships with industries and businesses. As former Malaysian Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh, said, “Industry and Academia are one, that’s why we need to collaborate.”

Yet, a recent Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows Australia trailing at the end in active collaboration between universities and business. The report shows that only 3.5% of large corporations and 4.1% of small and medium-sized companies in Australia are collaborating with higher education or public research institutions.

Australia’s industry-academia gap widened with the unrelenting autonomy of universities and their perceived disconnect from the real world and the needs of regular people and industry. Moreover, the university ranking and reward systems has led to universities prioritizing research over teaching, thus, effectively dampening relationship building between academics and industry. In fact, former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was critical of universities prioritizing peer review over local industry. He said, “Everyone I talk to believes that the problem is academics … their incentives are very much associated with publish or perish.”

From another perspective, former Australian Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, criticized university surpluses, referring to universities as burgeoning bureaucracies benefitting from ‘the rivers of gold’ through increasing student enrolments.

However, the insulation of universities from society has led to a situation where students who graduate and join the country’s workforce, lack workplace skills. Experts comment that partnering with businesses, universities can better understand the need of employers, allow students to apply their learning in the context of the workplace, and provide employers the opportunity to have an “early look” at possible future employees.

Students who graduate and join the country’s workforce, lack workplace skills

Analysts have suggested that the continuing disconnect between academia and industry in Australia could be broken with the concept of “Innovation Districts” that will effectively promote corporate-university collaboration. Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the U.S. thinktank, Brookings Institution, in Washington DC, define Innovation Districts as “geographic areas where leading-edge companies, research institutions, start-ups and business incubators are located in dense proximity.”

With global corporate head offices, and research and development generally concentrated in the U.S. and Europe, Innovation Districts are also more likely to be found in these regions. And the fall out perception is that Australia is an economic “outpost,” with less opportunity for establishing Innovation Districts.

Despite this, similar concepts to Innovation Districts do exist in Australia, such as the technology park close to Macquarie University, the public research university based in Sydney, Australia, with 100 companies currently employing 45,000 people, projected to double in 20 years. The collaborative approach in this Australian tech park led to a productive  academia-industry partnership resulting in the development and commercialization of WiFi technology. The Australian government agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Macquarie University, teamed up to apply for grant funding to establish a Cooperative Research Centre that specialized in Local Environment Communications Technology. This initiative ultimately led to the birth of WiFi that is used by some five billion devices today, impacting millions of lives across the planet.

Since this successful project, the Cooperative Research Centres Association, a nonprofit that promotes the pursuit of science, has connected numerous companies and researchers,  leading to productive collaboration.

Nevertheless, as Professor David Wilkinson, Deputy Vice Chancellor (corporate engagement and advancement) at Macquarie University, perceives, Australia needs to essentially develop a model of academic partnering with the corporate sector, that is easily replicated “across all industries and company structures.” In his view, Australia could benefit from the model developed by the Network of Academic Corporate Relations Officers (NACRO) in the U.S., which encourages corporate and university partners to engage in long-term commitments of sharing risk and reward for mutual benefit.

This is critical for Australia, where industry is increasingly withdrawing from financial commitment to university education, perceiving research and college education as an unnecessary drain on corporate profits. This perception effectively devalues the contribution of skilled research engineers in the development and progress of industry.     

Yet, the decisive middle ground between academia and industry is industry-focused research, that subsequently achieves technological, scientific and economic breakthroughs. This becomes less and less achievable the further academia and industry drift apart.  

Therefore, in order that Australia does not get left behind on the international platform of technological advancement, concerted and committed effort needs to be made to pull academia and industry toward each other, to meaningfully engage to regain Australia’s competitive edge in a technologically-based society.

As content marketing consultant and social media strategist, Jay Baer, said, “The gap between what’s expected and what you deliver is where the magic happens, in business and in life.”

Rajika Jayatilake

Rajika Jayatilake is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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