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University and industry collaboration crucial for bridging skills gap

03 June 2022

Universities and industry are “natural partners” for bridging the skills gap and sparking innovation and productivity.  Government also has a huge role to play while SMEs are in desperate need of support to benefit, experts said at our recent webinar presented by the Ai Group Centre for Education & Training (Ai Group CET).  

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Wendy Larter

Universities and industry are “natural partners” for bridging the skills gap and sparking innovation and productivity. 

Government also has a huge role to play while SMEs are in desperate need of support to benefit, experts said at our recent webinar presented by the Ai Group Centre for Education & Training (Ai Group CET).  

Megan Lilly, Executive Director, Ai Group CET, said: “Today’s environment of fast-paced technology and the need for more regular innovation, quickly changing knowledge and skills needs — along with skills shortages — means there is a need for teaching, learning and research to be more closely linked with industry needs. 

“We’re not just talking about partnership for research but closer collaboration on learning, content, delivery, micro credentials, placements and projects through work-integrated learning and co-locating.” 

Webinar panelist John Dewar, Vice Chancellor, La Trobe University and Chair, Universities Australia, said there is much to be gained from successful collaboration and enormous strength if universities and industry can speak to government with one voice. 

“Universities and industry are natural partners,” Mr Dewar said. 

“We both have a huge amount to gain from working closely and constructively with each other. From the university side, we do the two things that the country needs most: we help to fill the skills gap and we help with innovation and productivity. Those are the two biggest challenges facing the Australian economy.

“At the same time, we want our graduates to be in high-tech, high-value-add industries. We want them to be well equipped to thrive in their careers, to be adaptable and curious and to be lifelong learners.

“We want the nation to benefit from the research we do in our universities. There’s a lot at stake and, if nothing else, the financial returns to the taxpayer and to the private sector of working with universities are verry significant.  

“Every dollar invested in university educational research returns $4 or $5 back to the economy or back to individual partners and stakeholders.” 

Fellow panelist Iain Martin, Vice Chancellor, Deakin University and Chair, Australian Technology Network of Universities, said relationships with industry are incredibly important for all universities across Australia.  

“What we do within universities is important but the impact we create outside is critical,” Mr Martin said. 

“That’s what people see and want to see. We cannot do that effectively without strong industry partnerships. Partnership works if there is clarity about purpose of the partnership and both sides have skin in the game in terms of investment and making it work, and both sides have a strong shared understanding of what needs to come out on the other side. 

“We need to make sure that if we work together, we’re bringing government along so the policy settings, the incentives and the other pieces align with what we want to achieve rather than be a late add-on.” 

The need for government engagement was echoed by Nicolette Barnard, Head of Human Resources, Siemens Pacific Region. 

“We need to look at how we can improve collaboration with universities for every employer and look at how we bring all those employers on the journey,” Ms Barnard said. 

“There needs to be an integration of skills, knowledge and technology, and the only way we can do that is through good government partnership.” 

Barriers to successful collaboration 

According to Ms Barnard, the main barrier to successful collaboration is a lack of focus on priorities.  

“As a country, that is a huge barrier,” she said. 

“We are trying to be all things to all people and therefore we don’t create focus and priority in what we want to do.” 

The need for government to change university research models is another issue, Ms Barnard said.  

“Universities shouldn’t be in a situation where they get their research funding only from industry,” she added. 

“Otherwise, they will collaborate only with large industry. If the funding for their research comes in a different pathway, it allows them better opportunity to collaborate with any company without having to get revenue from that company.” 

Mr Martin said that historically, SMEs had struggled to form meaningful relationships with universities.  

“It’s challenging if you are an SME,” he said.

“Aligning goals for a small company that wants to quickly produce a small change in productivity on a product line often doesn’t align with many of the models around the longer term. We need to explore how an SME can generate genuine new IP-type conversations with a university.”   

One solution is for SMEs in industry groups to come together to solve some of these common problems. 

“It’s incredibly hard to support 10 or 20 SMEs to come together, not just in the research space but in the workforce space,” Mr Martin said.

“Big organisations have great HR teams but many SMEs don’t. There might be a place for government to help shape those sector-wide consortia of SMEs to improve engagement. Getting a few incentives from government to make this work well doesn’t need to be huge but it can make a big difference, particularly for SMEs.”     

Capacity and capability 

The panelists said universities need to make it easier for SMEs to reach out.  

“If you are a new industry partner or potential partner, you want to be able to knock on the (university) door and have the conversation,” Mr Martin said. 

Mr Dewar added: “Studies show Australian universities rank in the top 10 for the number of patent applications they submit to protect their IP, but when it comes to collaborative patent applications, Australia’s performance drops dramatically.  

“We’re in the bottom quarter of that measure which suggests that the challenge is not a commercial awareness of universities, it’s the capacity to bring industry and universities together around that commercialisation agenda.  

“If we want to improve this capacity on the commercialisation side, we have to find a way of getting into the SME segment of the economy and demonstrating how we can make a difference and build the relationship. 

“There’s a huge role for industry groups like Ai Group to get involved but there is a big role for the government to facilitate it, as well.”  

Work-integrated learning  

Universities have come a long way in the industry-engagement journey, Mr Dewar says.

“However, only about 40% of our students would undertake some form of workplace learning as part of their degree,” he added.

“That’s a significant minority and there’s still a long way to go. The incentives that we offer our researchers to collaborate with industry could be better attuned.”

Ms Barnard said learning needs to be viewed as a lifelong journey.  

“It’s time we look at foresight and say: ‘What are the skills this country needs to continue to build?’” she said. 

“We talk about work-integrated learning, and I sometimes wonder if people understand why that is so important. Learning has to be taken with a different approach in a 4th industrial revolution.  

“The scale and timing at which technology advances — and COVID has accelerated that all over the world — is almost exponential. You cannot keep up. By the time you finish your degree, whatever you had in the first year is already null and void. And that’s why work-integrated learning is so important. It’s lifelong learning.” 

Mr Dewar said this focus on lifelong learning had important ramifications for the future of universities.   

“Work-based learning is critical to inculcate a sense of lifelong learning and adaptability,” he said. 

“Universities need to think what our product is. Is a three-year bachelor’s degree the right solution all the time? I’m sure the answer is no.     

“One of the things the Government did during the early stages of the pandemic was to lift the restriction on how universities could spend their Commonwealth Supported Places funding for students.  

“Previously, we had been limited to spending that money on degrees. The rule change meant we could spend it on sub-bachelor qualifications like diplomas and advanced diplomas.  

“That led to a huge increase in the number of short courses. That will transform – and is in the process of transforming — the landscape of what universities offer. 

“Short-cycle qualifications will become an important part of the landscape. It means universities can respond quickly to the skills needs as they emerge – they can upskill, reskill and help people to move on in their careers in a way that is not possible with an undergraduate three-year degree.”  

However, there are constraints. 

“A lot of those three-year undergraduate degrees are professionally accredited,” Mr Dewar said. 

“They lead to professional admission of some sort or another and in that context, we are complying with whatever the relevant professional body says we have to do in order for someone to be recognised for entry into that profession.  

“However, I do think we will see more of these short-cycle, stackable, micro-credential-type qualifications emerging.” 

A holistic approach  

To satisfy demand domestically in industries in need requires evaluating the entire education, skills and training ecosystem. 

Engineering is a great case study of an industry in need, Mr Martin said. 

The problem starts in school, with too many students dropping STEM too early. 

“Students almost rule themselves out of those degrees right from the word go,” he said. 

“We also need to have a strong fundamental engineering program at university level, but from that strong base, how do we get students into the workforce? This is where the skills come in. That’s the partnership with industry.  

“I often get industry coming to me and saying: ‘Your graduates are not work ready’.  

“And then we sit down with them to explore what ‘work ready’ means: the students are not equipped to walk into that workplace and understand the technology environment; the IT and software that is used.  

“If we can have the partnerships with industry, we can start to build that into what we have done, right from the word go so we address some of those challenges.  

“It often does come down to these very practical issues. Then there are the other 40 or 50 years of your working life after you leave university. The need for flexibility to equip people with short or shorter courses — three or six months— is going to be really important,” Mr Martin said. 

Moving forward 

The SME-university partnership shortfall needs to be overcome, with government support. 

“Unless there is engagement — person-to-person contact — you don’t even get to the starter’s gate,” Mr Dewar said. 

“We need clearer, more directed incentives to SMEs to come and work with universities. It would have a disproportionate positive impact, relative to the amount of money it would take.” 

Ms Barnard said SMEs need to keep looking for opportunities. 

“I would invite the SMEs to reach out to their end customer base or those companies that they know who might already be in there or even the universities,” she said. 

“I don’t think there is a university that wouldn’t take an SME’s call. For larger companies, if you haven’t already got a good collaboration model with a university or multiple universities, it’s time to start because that’s where the skills will be created for you to use in the future. There should be no large industry that is not already a partner of a university.  

“Sucess for SMEs depends a lot on large industry taking small industry with them.”  

Mr Martin said industry groups, such as The Australian Industry Group, have a critical role in bringing industry and universities together, a view echoed by Ms Lilly. 

“There’s a role for everybody: universities, industry, individual companies, government and industry associations,” Ms Lilly said. 

“Everyone has to contribute to this space. The Centre for Education & Training is going to keep this conversation going and look at where natural supply chains or SME clusters exist.”