Education Minister Christopher Pyne recently announced a review of university research funding and policy. It’s designed to go hand in glove with the government’s Boosting the Commercial Returns from Research strategy.
The emphasis in the terms of reference on the responsibility of universities to strengthen industry linkages and engagement makes the silence on the role of industry in this two-way enterprise all the more deafening.
At the Universities Australia conference this year, Business Council of Australia president Catherine Livingstone said: “None of the new-era opportunities can be realised without far more effective collaboration between the university sector and industry.”
Having squarely pointed the finger at universities, she went on: “We in business are equally accountable for driving a mindset shift around collaboration, and how we facilitate and exercise it.”
Indeed. The federal government, particularly Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, has long expressed concern about the disconnect between industry and university research.
He has a point. There is no escaping the fact Australia’s industry and university sectors don’t work particularly well together compared with the situation in other nations.
In 2011, Australia ranked 33 out of 33 OECD countries for the level of large companies collaborating with higher education or public research agencies, and 32 out of 33 for small and medium-sized company collaboration. For those unfamiliar with the OECD list, we sit well below South Korea (10 out of 33/6 out of 33), Spain (18/21), Estonia (22/26) and Turkey (27/28).
Only 3.5 per cent of Australia’s large firms work with universities and public research agencies.
This compares with 43.2 per cent in Germany, 39.8 per cent for South Korea, 31.3 per cent in Britain and 22.5 per cent in New Zealand.
If this isn’t bad enough, Australia’s business expenditure on research and development is well below the OECD average – 1.24 per cent of gross domestic product compared with an OECD average of 1.62 per cent in 2011. And the proportion of innovation-active firms collaborating with universities or other research institutions declined from 12.1 per cent in 2006 to 9.6 per cent in 2010. The reasons for this collaborative malaise are many and complex. Although there are signs of change, there is no escaping the need for a system-wide and cultural turnaround if we are to compete with the world’s best, all of which invest heavily in research and innovation.
This cannot be achieved by universities, government or industry working separately. The review’s terms of reference refer to the need to “encourage universities to engage in research commercialisation and knowledge transfer with industry” and “provide incentives to universities to increase and improve engagement and collaboration with industry and other end users”.
That there is no mention of the need to encourage industry to play a more active role is regrettable. There is little point in universities reaching out if industry is unreceptive or the policy signals to encourage active engagement by all parties are missing.
Achieving the same level of interaction that we see in Europe, the US and, increasingly, Asia requires industry, as well as government and universities, to step up.
Championing and investing in the research and innovation ecosystem, employing more PhD graduates, expanding opportunities for work-integrated learning and researcher mobility between the sectors, and seeking out research partnerships that deliver mutual benefit are practical ways industry can contribute.
It’s time to engage in a difficult and long-term conversation.
This year, UA joined with the peak national industry bodies to announce a national work integrated learning strategy.
Its aim is to expand the opportunities for students to obtain meaningful work experience as part of their qualifications. With universities and industry working together, progress is being made.
There is no reason this shouldn’t serve as a model for driving greater inter-sectoral action in the research arena.
The nation deserves a clearly articulated and convincing plan for encouraging innovative entrepreneurship to stimulate longer-term productivity and economic growth.
The centrepiece has to be national research and innovation – the nation-building intellectual infrastructure that will deliver the new industries, products, breakthroughs and ideas to drive sustained and sustainable prosperity.
This new era demands a committed three-pronged approach by government, universities and industry, where responsibility is shared and good policy drives the convergence of entrepreneurship, good research and industrial diversification and innovation.