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Academe as development driver

“HOW CAN academe help support our region’s economic roadmap?” asked a faculty member from Eastern Visayas State University to kick off the open forum in Tacloban City, where I spoke the other day. The gathering was the Eastern Visayas leg of a nationwide series of forums held over the past year by the Department of Trade and Industry on the localization of industry roadmaps and the Asean Economic Community game plan.

It was a revelation to me that the region actually has the most number (10) of state colleges and universities among the country’s various administrative regions. And yet, Eastern Visayas has had among the highest incidences of poverty nationwide, even before Supertyphoon “Yolanda” devastated most of the region. This would seem to be an indictment of the region’s academic community for its apparent failure to help uplift common people’s lives. And this brings to mind the usual image of a college or university as an “ivory tower,” which is defined by the Free Dictionary as “a place or attitude of retreat, especially preoccupation with lofty, remote or intellectual considerations rather than practical everyday life.” And this, indeed, is too often the case in colleges and universities anywhere.

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Most higher education institutions (HEIs) consider their public mission standing on three legs: instruction, research and extension. The obvious and most prominent of these roles is to provide, through their graduates, the educated human power to propel the various productive activities in the economy, whether in agriculture, fishery and forestry, industry, or services. The sad reality is that nationwide, a serious mismatch exists between the skills needed in the growing economy, on the one hand, and those available in the labor force as shaped by the HEIs, on the other—implying that our colleges and universities have not been responsive to the actual needs of industry and the economy as a whole. A concrete example of this mismatch, of which I’ve written before, is how there have been more available jobs than actual applicants in the nationwide job fairs of the Department of Labor and Employment, even as 2.5 million are jobless among us.

The disconnect is more fundamental than in technical skills that employers require. It’s bad enough that companies deem inadequate the training in science and engineering competencies of recruitable graduates. They also commonly cite great difficulty in finding recruits with adequate “core competencies” that include simple language and communication skills, work attitude, ability to work in teams, and analytical and problem-solving capability.

The problem lies not in the HEIs alone, but traces back to the quality of their graduates’ basic education from the elementary and high school levels. Still, at the very least, colleges and universities must design their curricular offerings and course content to correspond more closely with what the jobs available out there require, lest they become little more than diploma mills.

The second critical function of HEIs that should support the needs of enterprises in a growing economy is research and innovation. For public research institutions such as state colleges and universities, the particular imperative is to support the technology needs of small firms (i.e., micro, small and medium enterprises or MSMEs). Such enterprises can ill-afford in-house research and development toward improving their processes and products, unlike large enterprises that usually have their own R&D units supported with ample budgets.

The all-too-common problem here is that incentive systems in the academe lead to too much research done for research’s sake, with little regard for commercial applicability of the researches undertaken. There is a “publish or perish” culture in the academe where promotions hinge on how many scholarly articles one can publish in peer-reviewed journals—with peer reviewers often applying rigid but often-irrelevant “ivory tower” standards. The result is too many researches merely gathering dust in library shelves.

Trade Assistant Secretary Fita Aldaba mentioned how in a recent visit to the Department of Science and Technology, they found that out of hundreds of inventions in its research inventory, only four had actually reached commercial application. To the credit of the Eastern Visayas HEIs, DTI Regional Director Cynthia Nierras attested that the region’s academic community is now helping develop and adapt various useful technologies with great commercial potential. These include freeze-drying and vacuum-frying of various farm and fishery products, which complements well with the region’s natural endowments.

On extension and outreach, the third leg of the HEIs’ mission, their key contribution would be in training small entrepreneurs, not only in commercially viable technologies as above, but also in strengthening management skills. The latter would include basic financial management, which too many small businesses pay too little attention to, hence making themselves unable to access loans from the banks.

I also pointed out the need for such management training to include developing a “coopetition” attitude among entrepreneurs. This denotes willingness to team up with competitors when the need arises, particularly when volume orders, especially from institutional and foreign buyers, make it impossible for a single small firm to respond to them. Too many opportunities have been lost to SMEs because of a “kanya-kanya” attitude, which has no place in an economy that needs more inclusive growth propelled by more small firms.

What roles can the academe play to promote inclusive economic growth and development? Looking at the above, which is far from a complete listing, there is plenty indeed.

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TAGS: academe, college, economy, education, Higher Education Institutions, opinion, state college
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