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                                                                                                                           Asean Affairs  9 January 2013  

Forging business education ties

Said Irandoust and Somhatai Panichewa

A critical factor that has been attracting attention of educationists is the employability of university graduates and the mismatch between their education and market requirements. Employers all over the globe are increasingly demanding that universities should endeavor to equip students with skills, qualities and attributes that are in consonance with the demand.

Universities are now been asked to produce graduates that have a combination of a strong educational base, high-level skills, an international outlook, adaptability, multiculturalism, besides an attitude of lifelong learning. A culture of innovation and inquisitiveness is much sought after today, compared to the culture of hierarchy and blind acceptance of orders.

Enabling institutes of higher learning to come to grips with this problem is not easy. Various models of university collaboration with business, industry and the market have been tried, tested and developed in various parts of the world. A recent report in England by Professor Sir Tim Wilson is aimed at attaining world leadership in university‚Äźbusiness collaboration. It mentions that just because a university achieves excellence in one domain does not imply that it is excellent in all other domains.

For South-East Asia, it is time to focus on business education ties so that graduates from this region are empowered with a skill set that can ensure not just local, but global employability. The region is a hub of economic activity and universities can take the lead in partnering with them.  With the upcoming ASEAN Economic Cooperation (AEC) in 2015, the skill labor force movements among ASEAN countries will provide additional economic growth opportunities.

In most developed countries university-business partnership has adapted various models. These models include collaborative degree programs, entrepreneurial support to students, creation of knowledge hubs within universities, sandwich programs, venture capital investment besides creation of science parks and centers of excellence.  The development of private sector-led Science Park and Science City in ASEAN also stimulates more university-business partnership in the region.

While insularity was a phenomenon of higher education ever since universities were founded, it is in recent times that the silo culture and insularity has been threatened. Universities and institutes that do not accept competition, performance and efficiency, besides employability of their graduates are now facing challenges from private, market-driven training institutes which provide their clients with skills that are needed in the job market.

Remaining isolated, thus, is no longer an option that can be enjoyed by any university. An interesting and innovative way is developing a partnership, where both business and university start looking into each other’s needs and focus on catering to their joint requirements.

One university initiative in the United Kingdom has been the establishment of Centres of Excellence in Learning and Teaching which focuses on work-based learning, and employability, besides innovation and enterprise. This is primarily an academic department which works on professional development. Almost two dozen universities have created such centres.

Degree programs nowadays require inputs from business at all stages, beginning from its design to its marketability. Program design requires market-oriented courses and syllabi. However the partnership does not end with the curriculum design, but includes delivery modules and schedules which are suited to the market. These centres work on matching employability factors with university practices.

Further, they engage experts from the market who are able to provide students with real-life skills. Internships and work-based programs supplement such programs. Add to it employability and absorption by the sponsor of the program, coupled with feedback on the quality of graduates, their skills and abilities, and the course becomes complete. Even if one element is missing, such a program will sooner or later lapse into insularity.

Sandwich programs are another innovative idea which is based on cooperation between universities and business. Sandwich programs allow a student to initiate studies in his or her parent institute, followed by a stint in the industry, business or with another partner. The student, after acquiring the skills from the external partner, or after having conducted his or her research with the partner, then returns to the parent institute to finish the program.

Such programs are also gaining acceptance due to a multitude of factors. The market is happy that it does not have to spend on in-service training programs to upgrade the skills of its employees. The student is assured of a job at the very moment the application is accepted for admission by the university. The university is assured of a regular income stream, a good intake of quality graduates and market acceptance. Further the government is happy that with private sector sponsoring such programs, it does not burden the state exchequer.

Examples of private sector-led Science Park and Science City include the ones under development by Amata Corporation PCL.  These include the development of High Technology Science Park in Vietnam and Amata Science City in Thailand.  To accomplish this, Amata Corporation PCL recognizes that human resources for research and development are one of the crucial infrastructures. So it made the effort to match companies in Amata Industrial Estates with its partner Universities in order to strengthen University-Business ties that would improve human resource development as well as foster research and development collaboration in the long run.

But it does not mean the state or the government has no role to play. For such a business-university ecosystem to be emerged, the state has to play the role of a catalyst and match-maker. The establishment of national level institutes and associations which foster such cooperation is one such way.

In the United Kingdom, there exists a Council for Industry and Higher Education, which facilitates and fosters industry and higher education partnerships. Another body, the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs encourages entrepreneurship and enterprise among students. The demand for an industry-education interface is so strong, that despite the existence of such bodies, more such bodies are being established. Suggestions include the establishment of Technology Boards, and voucher schemes for promotion innovation and entrepreneurship.

To foster business education ties, governments must think beyond creation of technology incubation centers or science and technology parks. The Lambert Report (2003) in UK stated that business tends to locate its research and development activity near research centers. This is true of England as in many other countries. It is not surprising that IKEA established the Ingvar Kamprad Design Center at the faculty of Engineering in Lund University in Sweden. This is an example of a private sector major preferring to establish a center within the premises of a state funded University.

Governments have to provide the policy mechanism and the enabling procedures for proper business-university ties to flourish. There is a huge demand for research organizations and institutes, particularly in the private sector. Business majors thrive on innovation and new developments in technology, and during the past few decades have invested heavily in their own research and development. Universities have an opportunity to seize the initiative, wherein they can tie-up with business and earn both money and goodwill.

Co-financing of programs is another way to ensure greater employability of university graduates. Under this scheme, a business house or a chamber of commerce helps in financing the course. In return the university ensures that its graduates are in tune with the requirements of the market. The government also co-finances the course, thereby ensuring that the money it had spent on subsidizing education is well spent, and the graduate is absorbed in the market and does not drain the public exchequer.

Many governments and universities are initially hesitant to engage in co-financing programs for a wide variety of reasons. But there is a gap, and this gap is being increasingly filled by the private sector education which is offering non-degree programs. These private sector providers are not accredited universities, but they are providing the skills needed to enter into the job market. This gap can be filled by institutions of learning by providing better skills that also bring along with them a certain prestige associated with the institute.

Another model of business-university collaboration is fostering of entrepreneurship among students. Business helps students with an entrepreneurship fund where they try and commercialize their work. It also assists with the necessary requirements to fine-tune and market the product or technology, while the university acts as an incubator. Such incubation methods have been successfully implemented in South-East Asia. Universiti Teknologi Mara, one of the largest public funded universities in Malaysia. The University has dedicated a gallery called the Innovation and Creativity Gallery which acts as a clearing house of products invented by the university’s academics and scientists. The most admired section being the winners of their annual innovation exposition titled “Invention, Innovation and Design.”

Entrepreneurial skills can be inculcated in a number of ways. The traditional option has been the creation of special learning modules for desirous students. The more successful option is that of embedded learning, where students are made part of a team within a business environment. Yet another is a combination of business experts taking a lead role in imparting academic programs on innovation and entrepreneurship.

All these models of business-university partnership, whether it is centers of excellence, internship, sandwich programs, co-financing, incubator parks, entrepreneurial cells, collaborative degree programs, knowledge hubs within universities or venture capital centers, essentially require an institutional support to thrive and flourish.

A lone university or a lone business house may patch up a collaboration that works for them. For the partnership to spread and bring genuine benefit to people, it must have a support structure that can outlast a single project. An array of institutions or centers has to be created to facilitate this phenomenon so that it does not remain restricted to a few players alone.

Entrepreneurial organizations, chambers, centers of excellence, innovation centers have to be in place to institutionalize this practice. Successful models need to be replicated, and the knowledge and experience gained from success stories needs to be disseminated. The role of governments assumes increased importance in facilitating business-university liaison to ensure the fruits of the innovation are shared among the younger generation so that they do not have to struggle in the market armed with degrees but struggling for jobs.

*Said Irandoust is the President of the Asian Institute of Technology
*Somhatai Panichewa is Chief Business Officer-Amata Corporation PCL and President-Amata (Vietnam) Joint Stock Company


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