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Reducing academia-industry gap: Three approaches

M. Rokonuzzaman | Published: November 05, 2019 21:21:47 | Updated: November 15, 2019 20:41:27


Academia-industry gap has been a growing issue, particularly in developing countries like Bangladesh. Industry and academia have a mutually reinforcing relationship. Industry looks to academia for qualified candidates to add to its workforce. On the other hand, success of academia primarily depends on the employability of graduates. To address the quality issue, academic institutions like Universities have been upgrading their curricula following globally reputed institutions and teaching methodology. Universities are acquiring high calibre faculty members. But the reality remains that potential employers have been complaining about the lack of competence of many of the graduates. It's an irony that some of those graduates, upon migrating to advanced countries, are succeeding in pursuing higher education and also building careers. Such reality raises an important question about this vital academia-industry gap. How to address it?

Higher educational institutions like universities have the mandate to develop graduates who can globally compete, both in academic pursuits and the job market. On the other hand, the local job market demands graduates to meet their purposes. It seems that there is a mismatch. The gap between the two exists due to differences in their approaches, missions, and goals.

To bridge the gap, companies and academic institutions are required to collaborate more closely for mutual benefits. Government entities also have important roles to play. Such collaboration often needs to be primed by public fund, but should be scaled up and sustained by funding of the industry. Policies and regulations have a strong role in encouraging such mutually beneficial partnerships.

There may be three primary ways of addressing this gap. The first one is about developing the curricula and adopting teaching methodology recommended by the industry to produce ready-to-use graduates by the employers. Such an approach often turns academic institutions into corporate training centres. Through such an approach, short-term necessity could be fulfilled, often at the cost of the long-term purpose of higher education. Mainly, in developing countries, the industry has been engaged in making products by importing capital machinery, product ideas as well as design, and also management practices. Such industrial strategy often leaves no room for science and engineering graduates to use their theory-centric academic capability to conceptualise a situation, and pursue solutions through adaptation of best practices and also innovation. Often weak management capacity of existing firms fails to nurture such ability and allocate resources for the purpose. As a result, tailoring higher education to meet the current needs of the industry often runs the risk of failing to meet the broader purpose. 

The second one is the academic institution-led approach to develop industry-ready human resources. Universities undertake R&D (research & development) activities and they succeed in building products and new firms around them, creating jobs for graduates having experience in working in those R&D and venture incubation activities. It appears to be a linear model (perfected by Americans and also Europeans) and easy to comprehend for academic institutions. Such a model seems to be at the core of the very low industry and academia gap in the United States. Major universities in the USA pursue this model in creating new industries and populating them with the spin-off of their research laboratories. For example, California's Silicon Valley used to be an orange orchard. In contrary to firms of the Silicon Valley asking neighbouring universities like Stanford University to produce human resources for them, spin-offs of R&D activities of those universities have turned farmland into high-tech clusters. Creating such success following the linear model of innovation in developing countries appears to be extremely difficult.

The third one is led by industry through collaborative R&D. Instead of just replicating products based on imported ideas and technology, industry undertakes the journey of pursuing relentless perfection of redesigning products in making them better as well as cheaper, by absorbing, adapting and advancing science, technology and innovation. In doing so, they form partnership with universities, turning them into virtual industry R&D laboratories. Companies use academic labs as incubators of ideas for redesigning their products as well as processes to produce them. As a result, faculty members and students keep getting exposed to addressing industries' competitiveness issues through education, research, development, and innovation. 

This third approach appears to be more pragmatic than the others. Certainly, the other two options have the potential to complement the third one. Such an approach also reduces pressure on the government in addressing issues of industrial competitiveness through diverse incentives. The question could be: how to trigger and institutionalise this collaboration?

To begin with, the government should reform industry and education policies. Such reform should focus on local industrial value addition through ideas of product and process innovations, in addition to labour and raw materials. Such a change in industrial policy should be complemented with the shift in focus on higher education policy.

Industry-academia collaboration is a burning issue for developing countries to fuel the growth of the economy through the development of human capital. The potential of labour and raw material in fuelling the growth and creating jobs has been running out of steam. On the other hand, the growing unemployment of university graduates is a serious issue.

 M. Rokonuzzaman, PhD is an academic and researcher: Technology, innovation and policy

 Zaman.rokon.bd@gmail.com

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