Business Matters

University-business collaboration

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The University of the Philippines, De La Salle, Ateneo de Manila and Asian Institute of Management joined 72 other higher education institutions from 37 countries at the 3rd Asem (Asia-Europe Meetings) Rectors’ Conference convened last week at Groningen University in the Netherlands. Most of the participants came from government institutions; in both Europe and Asia, the state has historically assumed responsibility for education at all levels.

Even for UP, the conference focus on university-business engagement “for a sustainable future” is no longer a new concern. In developing countries where the government lacks the financial resources to support the expanding demand for higher education, universities need other sources of funding and must engage with the private sector. Developed countries have now recognized that the state can no longer bear the education burden alone.

Recurring financial crises in recent decades have sapped government financial strength. More fundamentally, the education game has changed. Higher education can no longer remain the preserve of the social and economic elite. Postsecondary education needs to be “massified” to supply the requirements of the knowledge economy. And education must prepare, not for a single lifetime job, but for a lifetime of different jobs.

Society also demands more from the universities. It expects education to solve all kinds of social, political and behavioral problems, from obesity to ethnic cleansing and conflict resolution. The “sustainable future” in the conference theme does not refer only to the sustainability of universities; the larger concern is the sustainability of the planet, as it confronts a growing population, rising consumer demands, diminishing resources, environmental degradation—and their political consequences.

In the guise of promoting institutional autonomy, governments have allowed universities to raise funds for themselves. Educators have complained that it is the state that has gained autonomy by shifting the financial burden to the universities.

In practice, autonomy meant granting to state universities the right to collect fees from their students, and these fees have been rising. Recourse to collecting from the “customers” has provoked opposition from the student groups, better organized in Europe than in Asia, which have condemned the “commodification” of education.

Education stakeholders are still debating the basic premises underlying the altered parameters of the state’s education mission. Nowhere was this more evident than in the workshops that addressed “the imperative for excellence and the issue of equal access.” Two workshops separately discussed this issue and reported to the plenary conflicting conclusions. One group maintained that it was possible to pursue both excellence and access. The second group concluded that institutions often traded off these two laudable goals.

The countries of the South, the less developed countries in Europe and Asia, more accustomed to resource constraints, seemed more inclined to recognize and accept tradeoffs between excellence and access. It is often politicians in both North and South who can, with a straight face, instruct government and university executives to reduce costs, raise academic quality, and accept every student that applies for admission, all at the same time.

Students also oppose the notion of tradeoffs in education. The official position of European student unions appears to insist on the right of students to free university education. This advocacy poses a problem for developing countries in Asia that are still struggling to achieve the Education for All goal of universal access to primary education.

Like the terms of engagement for the students, those for university-business collaboration also need careful articulation. In principle, everyone supported the desirability and even the necessity of university-business collaboration. But many also expressed the need for caution. We have recently seen, in the Ateneo case, how different premises and expectations can undermine the relationship between the academe and its alumnus/business patron.

Universities need business support: to help fund scholarships, research, infrastructure, sports; to provide opportunities for internships; to open up employment for graduates. That business needs to support universities is not so evident. The alumni connection, and the notion of the graduates giving back in gratitude for the education that presumably contributed to their success, encourages the donation. But this is still philanthropy, which is how business has traditionally helped education.

Assistance to education as corporate social responsibility is a more recent and more tricky approach. Business and academe operate on different default modes. Universities seek to share research as widely as possible to push the frontiers of knowledge. Business would prefer to keep discoveries secret and proprietary. Human resource development is a shared goal. But why support schools whose graduates may go to competitors?

If an educated population is necessary to sustain economic growth, the government must assist the private sector engaged in higher education. It can leverage its resources and promote policies to make it easier and less painful for business to practice philanthropy or a more expansive concept of social responsibility. University-business engagement needs government support.

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. E-mail: edejesu@yahoo.com.

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