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No Free Lunch

Universities need to shape up

/ 05:26 AM January 12, 2018

Many believe that lack of jobs is not our problem; it’s the mismatch between available jobs and available skills that is. Coordination between industry and academe has long been a challenge, and the latter is unable to respond adequately to the needs of the former. There are many reasons for this, and the problem is more complex than it looks.

The USAID Science, Technology, Research and Innovation for Development (STRIDE) program is a unique initiative that aims to boost the responsiveness of Philippine universities to the science and technology requirements of the private sector. This is particularly crucial at this time for at least three reasons. First, the country is said to be in a “demographic sweet spot,” with an unusually high percentage of its population at working age. Second, manufacturing has been undergoing a strong resurgence in the country after many years of sluggish growth. Third, there is much worry about drastically changing demands in the labor market with the onset of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” driven by the advance of artificial intelligence.

A STRIDE white paper observed various issues needing deliberate action, ranging from reform of research procurement rules, to building stronger university-industry relationships around shared missions and goals. There are two aspects to the latter: Universities are not able to produce enough of the right graduates that industry needs (education), and research done in universities do not directly address the actual requirements of industry (extension). Industries are in turn hampered from achieving stronger growth that would allow them to generate more jobs.

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STRIDE noted that mutual distrust and disregard between universities and industry get in the way of effective collaboration between them. Most universities consider assisting companies to be outside of, or even in conflict with, their core missions. I have known university administrators who even frowned upon and suppressed such assistance being provided by their faculty members, seeing it as a mercenary activity that detracts the latter from their supposed responsibilities. Meanwhile, faculty members often fear that relationships with business might lead to “theft” of their ideas, with severe financial and reputational consequences. Leaders of public universities in particular may risk facing vocal criticism for engaging in relationships with business, even when these can help expand the university’s limited resource base. For their part, businesses cite difficulty in convincing universities of their shared interests, resent the suspicions harbored in academe, and often doubt that universities can deliver commercially relevant research in a timely way. Academics are indeed often notorious for taking their sweet time in research.

In a prior study also supported by USAID, Brain Trust Inc. noted various modes for strengthening industry-academe collaboration. On-the-job training programs that universities require could be much better managed to yield far greater benefits to both trainees and host companies. There is much scope for closer coordination in course and curriculum design so that universities can better anticipate industry’s forthcoming skills demands, based on business outlooks that firms themselves are best placed to foresee. Universities should encourage, not shun, having faculty research address actual needs of industry. Some companies offer scholarships in coordination with chosen universities to create their own pool of skilled recruitables. Some also donate equipment to schools, including those that their companies use, minimizing needed hands-on training once the company employs their graduates. Quality of instruction in technical courses targeted for industrial employment could be enhanced through faculty enrichment via industrial immersion—i.e., have teachers spend paid time working in industrial firms to gain real (vs. theoretical) experience. Universities could in turn engage guest lecturers from industry practitioners through arrangements with their firms.

It takes two to tango, as they say, and the two sides simply need to reach out to each other better.

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, job mismatch, No Free Lunch, science and technology, Universities
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