You are never too young to know what you want to be in life. Take a cue from University of South Australia (UniSA). As one of Australian’s youngest universities, UniSA has set its sights to be the nation’s university of enterprise.
With more than 32,000 students, UniSA is South Australia’s largest and was ranked 25th in the QS World University Rankings for institutions under 50 years old last year.
On average over the past five years, 90 per cent of its graduates going on to full-time work are employed in a professional occupation within four months of completing their degree.
Having a university degree is important, but so is industry experience and relevance that the degree offers. UniSA aims to provide exactly that—a safety net against unemployment.
“One big challenge that every university institution face is the perception that all universities are the same,” said Professor David Lloyd, vice-chancellor and president, University of South Australia.
“We are one of the handful of universities in the world that have an expertise on business growth. We are solutions-focused—that’s our key differentiator.
“And on that basis, we work as an integrated group as we engage with businesses and end-users. We are not just as a collection of disciplines and schools.”
Prof Lloyd brings up another misconception that universities are difficult to work with because they are ‘academic’ in their approach.
“Many think that universities do not appreciate or understand business motivators. So one experience that a company has with one university or researcher could colour their view of all other universities.
“We counter this misperception through examples in the way we deal with businesses, maintaining the reputation we have built, and continuing to sell our successes.”
For example, UniSA’s partnership with US computer and business services giant Hewlett-Packard is a model for industry, government and university collaboration, says Prof Lloyd.
Backed by support from the state government, HP launched an Innovation and Collaboration Centre at UniSA’s City West campus two years ago. The centre gives students and small businesses access to HP’s global capabilities, with a $5.5 million state government grant to UniSA to help establish the centre.
As part of the partnership, UniSA and HP have rolled out a four-year honours degree program in IT and business informatics, coupling leading-edge training and education with internships in HP for students during the course of their studies.
About 430 jobs will be created by 2018 as a result of this partnership, in fields such as software development. They are expected to be spread across the Innovation and Collaboration Centre and HP’s premises across Adelaide.
“The joint degree program developed alongside industry is designed for workforce readiness. HP staff teach into the program and provide input into the curriculum. On one hand, it ensures students stay competitive in the Australian market; on the other hand, we help to sustain and maintain capacity and momentum with businesses,” explained Prof Lloyd.
UniSA has a similar model with Rising Suns Pictures, an Adelaide-based visual effects firm which has worked with feature film, television and transmedia clients around the world. Since 1995, the firm gained worldwide accolades for its amazing, technically challenging work on nearly 100 feature films including Pan, Tarzan, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Gravity, The Wolverine, and Game of Thrones.
Students not only have the opportunity to learn the knowledge and skills from leading experts, but also to work on live projects to help them jumpstart their visual effects career.
Prof Lloyd revealed that in the last season of Games of Thrones, six out of the 10-plus visual effects specialists who were working on the series were UniSA students who have come through the program.
The university is also committed to help students transform their business ideas into successful start-ups through Venture Catalyst, a collaboration between the UniSA and the state government.
Under the program, students and graduates can apply for up to $50,000 seed funding to further develop a product or service and take it to market. Successful companies go on to receive mentoring, support and working space in the Innovation and Collaboration Centre.
This initiative was ‘one of the small steps that have made a big impact’ in Prof Lloyd’s opinion.
“Looking at the number of businesses that have been invested heavily by VC firms in recent years, we have done reasonably well in terms of commercialisation.
“Our efforts were recognised when the program won Best Entrepreneurial Support Initiative & People’s Choice Award at the KCA Research Commercialisation Awards 2016 this September.”
The Awards acknowledge the work of its members and TT/KE (technology transfer/knowledge exchange) practitioners in facilitating public sector research outcomes to improve the lives of the community, return economic value, or increase Australia’s competitiveness globally.
One start-up that have emerged from the program and is disrupting the computer vision space is Jemsoft.
Founded by two IT students in the second year of their degree, they have developed a software that allows users to train machine learning models for object detection, including face detection, facial recognition or objects like stop signs.
It has been licenced to a multinational consumer goods company for half a million dollars, with more clients knocking on their door. Based on their contract pipeline, Jemsoft projects staff numbers to increase from 9 to 20 by the end of the year and a revenue of $20 million next year.
Although it is already one of the world’s best new universities under 50, Prof Lloyd is not ready to take a breather yet. He has a few ideas on how to move the university forward.
“The next stage for us is about deepening relationships. I plan to base our success on having a few strong partnerships where we can practice, research and teach alongside the industry, and amplify that across different sectors.”
“Personally, I would like to see addressment in the R&D tax scheme to support industry to engage PHD employees. We ought to focus on the industry relevance of the PHD and on the capacity of industry to absorb PHD capabilities,” he said.
“It’s an investment in human capital and research capabilities. If institutions can provide job readiness and job relevance of the PHD, then industries can truly benefit from the deep subject knowledge and practical translation—and prosper.”