In the market for knowledge

03/09/2009 - 00:00

The relationship between industry and educators is closer than ever, but is it a perfect match?

In the market for knowledge

The relationship between industry and educators is closer than ever, but is it a perfect match?

THE $50 million head office is set near the river in a leafy street of Nedlands. The organisation's board is even more impressive than the building with the heads of Woodside, Wesfarmers and Azure Capital working as one to further its interests.

They are in the business of education.

Proponents of a strict separation between business and education need not visit the UWA Business School. Heavily backed by private enterprise, a swag of corporate logos on one wall competes with the electronic streaming of stock prices on another for the attention of students entering through the main doors.

Alan Robson, who has held the role of either deputy vice-chancellor or vice-chancellor at the University of Western Australia for 17 years, told a recent WA Business News forum that the relationship with business was a necessary one.

"When I started as deputy vice-chancellor, about 70 per cent of our funding came straight from government, and the figure for us now is down to about 30 per cent. So if you're not out there interacting and developing links ..." Professor Robson said, leaving others at the table to reach the obvious conclusion.

Australian universities receive funding from a variety of sources, including direct government grants, domestic and international student fees (see graph on page 14), contribution scheme charges, and investment and research income.

There is also a substantial and growing degree of private funding - from a range of sources - at the tertiary level, according to the latest Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Develop-ment report on the education sector.

When successful Western Australian businessman Gordon Martin became chancellor of Curtin University, he witnessed a difference in the competitive environments universities and private enterprise face.

"Universities are large and complex organisations, and in a way, they have in the past - and I'm not saying they aren't now - been subject to comfort zones because they haven't been in a competitive environment. That's changing," Mr Martin said.

"That whole sector has had to change, and change quite significantly. The dollar is becoming more important."

The Coogee Chemicals chairman and outgoing Curtin chancellor said the needs of industry were changing more rapidly than ever, due in large part to the growth of the Asian economy. In turn, according to Mr Martin, universities must adapt.

"The demands on universities to remain relevant are changing. You have to build those links to remain responsive," he said.

The OECD report found the proportion of private funding of tertiary educational institutions was often high enough to challenge the view that tertiary education was primarily a state responsibility (see graph, page 13).

The emerging view, according to the OECD, is that, given the shared public and private returns education brings, costs and responsibilities for its provision at a tertiary level should also be shared between those who directly benefit, which includes private households, government and business.

But how should these relationships work? Most educators reach into the business community to establish advisory boards for different areas of study, and most educators admit they have mixed results.

Some boards act like consultants, while others are more like company boards charged with near autonomous decision-making powers.

Mr Martin doesn't believe these boards should be dominated by academics.

"You've got to have a real ability to feed information and feed information back, and they have to somehow be brought into the fold to the point where that network starts to get used, so they feel they can talk to the university and the university feels that they can talk to them," he said.

"It's not a partnership per se, but it's an very effective way of remaining relevant."

Independent consultant Andrew Pickford said educators could benefit from tapping into alumni networks, as the UWA Business School had with former students on its board.

"It's that linking in and delivering back ... which is incredibly valuable," said Mr Pickford, formerly of think-tank Future Directions International.

Vocational education and training providers have historically had a closer relationship to industry than universities.

But that's not to say there aren't challenges for the training providers.

Attendees at the WA Business News roundtable - which consisted of representatives of industry, universities and Tafes - cited industry requests for graduates with highly specialised, but low demand, skills as being a tough demand to meet.

Central Tafe's Jamie Mackaway said educators and industry needed to work together so workers could upskill and obtain training for the long term.

"What we found in the boom was that we had a lot of difficulty retaining students in their educational programs so business was taking those students well before we thought they were skilled to do the job," he said

Challenger Tafe managing director Liz Harris agrees industry and educators need to focus on the long term.

"There's a lot of those people who were earning $100,000 with no skills at all realising that they are now part of a competitive training market and need to upskill," Ms Harris said.

"I think we need to think a bit more long term."

Challenger has about 300 industry partnerships, and half of the training the Fremantle-based group does is conducted onsite in workplaces.

The Tafe curriculum is also signed off by industry at state and national levels.

It is understandable that there is some scepticism among educators of the influence of business. Priorities can clash, as educators have a responsibility to protect their students' long-term needs and employability, which may not suit a particular business's short-term needs.

"Once lecturers really cottoned on to the fact that working with industry wasn't a threat, and that it was actually quite exciting to behave in an enterprising and entrepreneurial way ... we had a very strong cultural change movement within the organisation towards a more enterprising culture and it has been fabulously successful," Ms Harris said.

The issue of job placements, holiday work and internships was regularly raised during the roundtable as an area of great potential. The general view was that placements and internships should be viewed as a long recruitment interview.

Mr Pickford said red tape could stand in the way of students getting industry experience and of educators getting teachers with a background in the industry.

"For someone engaging an intern through a university, it's an administrative nightmare. It's made far too difficult," he said.

"It is the same for part-time teachers at a university. The bureaucracy and the paperwork are unbelievable. I think there's a big pool of people who definitely have the academic credentials and industry credentials that are happy to come in later years to teach, and to teach to academic standards."

Paul Reed, national president of the Association of Consulting Engineers Australia and Parsons Brinkerhoff regional director, said while there was a feeling in his sector that work integrated learning was not well coordinated, there were initiatives to improve the process.

Using data that coincides with the Howard government years, the latest OECD report names Australia among the countries to have expanded participation in tertiary education by shifting some of the financial burden to students.

In contrast, the report found Nordic countries expanded tertiary education through major public spending.

Educators understand most students work while they study. It is the nature of the 16 hours a week of paid work that an average university student does that UWA's Professor Robson thinks could be better aligned with industry.

"The real problem is that most of the work they are doing is not related to their profession," Professor Robson said. "Most graduates come out with quite a lot of work experience but not necessarily work experience in their vocation and this is quite a challenge in how we might go about getting better linkages."

Georgiou Group head John Georgiou told the forum his construction and contracting business was a strong supporter of vacation employment for students. However, educators could change the way they were perceived by the community in order to establish links, he said.

"I think the way the universities and educational institutions brand themselves could change a little bit and so the community, or business community, sees them more as a service provider," Mr Georgiou said.

From an industry perspective, educators could also do a better job of teaching students communication skills, according to the views expressed at the roundtable.

Murdoch University deputy vice-chancellor, academic, Jan Thomas agrees it's a challenge to incorporate those skills into academic programs, especially in generalist degrees.

"I think the cultural shift that's needed at universities is around academics willingness and then delivering on integrating those into their curriculum," Ms Thomas said.

With much talk of high-level business partnerships, Professor Robson's concluding remarks refocused attention on the broader issues facing educators, business and government. Citing studies showing that education gaps in society were increasing to the detriment of rural residents and Aboriginal people, he said the nation has quite a challenge.

"Until we address that issue, which I think we will only address by putting more resources into public education ... we are missing out on skilled labour, and we're also creating a class of people who are excluded from the mainstream."



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