Beverley Head
April 3, 2018

Tough partners: Unis and business

The Establishment

Tough partners: Unis and business

Belinda Robinson: The economy will reap rewards through a boost in collaboration

For every dollar that a business invests in collaborative university research, it reaps $4.50. But the nation needs another 8,000 businesses to get on board if Australia is going to approach the US or Israel collaboration experience.

Universities Australia’s Clever Collaborations report makes a strong business case for partnering with universities. Commissioned research from Cadence Economics reveals that formal collaboration between universities and business generates $10.6 billion worth of revenues for the companies involved, and the report says that the broader economic impact of the collaboration is $19.4 billion.

ABS figures indicate 16,000 businesses have formal collaborations with universities. Universities Australia is pushing for that to increase by 50 per cent, which it says will put Australia on a par with the US and Israel and lift us from 27th to 18th ranking on the World Economic Forum’s innovation ladder.

Encouraging greater interactions between the private sector and tertiary education was a key recommendation of the recent Innovation and Science Australia report Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation. It recommended that R&D incentives be made available to organisations which collaborate with universities and research institutions.

Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia needs little convincing.

Universities Australia is the peak national body for the university sector. Its key role is to lobby for appropriate policy, regulatory and fiscal settings to support a dynamic higher education system.

Ms Robinson says that “Universities in Australia and around the world are operating in a more intense competitive environment than they ever have. Universities are competing for research dollars, for domestic students and for international students.”

They also understand the need to engage more deeply and at different levels with industry. That may be through collaborative research, contracted research, expert-in-residence initiatives, student placements and scholarship programs.

Universities get to understand what industry needs and conduct paid-for research; industry provides guest lecturers to teach students about real world issues and update university thinking; students work in industry to gain a commercial lens on their studies.

The recently released Clever Collaborations report features an impressive array of businesses which are already working with universities in a broad span of disciplines and industries.

According to Ms Robinson although the Australian university sector is squeezed for cash thanks to funding freezes and the end of the infrastructure grants program it remains the “third most popular destination for international students looking to study abroad and has an enviable international reputation for quality and safety.”

“There’s no question that we have one of the world’s best university systems that delivers excellence and quality in research and education,” she said

She also believes that university-industry collaboration is more commonplace than some statistics might suggest. “There have been some questions over whether the international statistics are comparing apples with apples,” says Ms Robinson.

In 2013 the OECD famously ranked Australia last in a group of 41 countries for its collaboration performance.

Whatever the statistics suggest Ms Robinson acknowledged that more SME collaboration needs to be encouraged. She said the ISA recommendation that a premium R&D tax incentive be used to encourage more collaboration is an “important and significant” step. However more work needs to be done to identify lingering impediments she says.

While many universities strive to work with smaller entities, some labour under restrictive and highly legalistic conditions that demand even start ups have millions of dollars’ worth of insurance cover which can be prohibitive.

“If we are going to expand our horizons beyond the taxation system then it helps to understand what some of these impediments are.

“It is a challenge for all of us – but it’s time a really good thorough look at the impediments. Only then can we really design the policy responses to ensure that the small and medium businesses are well served.”

When it comes to the education role that universities play, Ms Robinson said that there also needed to be a rethink as success “in the new economy requires attention at all levels of education – to think about education as a lifelong journey from early childhood all the way through.

“The average 18-year old is likely to have 17 jobs through their careers. As the economy moves quickly our education institutions need to be keeping up to an extent – and ensuring that graduates are equipped with the sort of skills to enable them to be responsive and flexible as they move through a career characterized by rapid changes.

“They need skills to move around into different careers and adapt to the impact of AI and robotics. To be able to find themselves a place in this new connected place of work where they will perhaps be establishing their own micro-companies.

“The future of work and the changes we can reasonably expect to see really mean universities need to ensure they are equipping students with skills to adapt rapidly.”

The Business Council of Australia has also called for a rethink on education, particularly adult education and recommended adults be provided with a lifelong skills account that they can tap for ongoing education programs.

It’s less clear where the funding for such a program would come from – the BCA is certainly not advocating business stumps up the cash.

Ms Robinson is not sure the BCA’s proposal would work in any case – but agrees with the need for lifelong learning

She’s also optimistic that universities will innovate in the way they operate, perhaps forging global links so that students can easily take credits from one institution with them to another, particularly if that were offered as part of an online education programme.

“A portfolio approach to education where a student might want to take a subject from one university, one from another and one from a TAFE and blend those into a package that meets their needs.”

Because of regulation in the sector she acknowledged that “At the moment it’s quite difficult to really innovate – but not unsurmountable and there is a growing awareness of the need to partner innovate and more flexible and deliver in the students’ best interest.”

The nation’s too.

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