By Peter Binks, Chief Executive Officer, BHERT
This article appeared in FORGE MAGAZINE: Available from newsagents from 14 December 2018.
Download a copy: BHERT-article-Forge-Vol-4-No-3.pdf
Over the past decade, as Australia has wrestled with the challenges of its post-resources boom economy, shifting global alliances, and the Brexit-Trump double-whammy to the established order, we have had plenty of opportunity to find fault in our own backyard.
Australia has some of the world’s best universities, a set of great research institutions, and companies that rank among the world’s best in fields as diverse as banking and finance, mining, agriculture, and medical technology. How is it, then, that according to common perception, these great institutions cannot seem to find a way to work together?
It is a proposition almost unchallenged in the public domain that Australian companies and universities cannot collaborate. This is supported by the oft-cited OECD statistic from 2015 that Australian companies rank 33rd – out of 33 – in company–university collaboration relating to innovation.
That OECD analysis is patently wrong. It systematically undercounts more than 10,000 formal partnerships between 38 Australian universities and a range of Australian companies. These partnerships represent an annual investment of more than $1.2 billion – a figure that is growing by more than five per cent year-on-year.
Any of the 230 industry executives, university leaders and community managers who were at Melbourne’s Park Hyatt on 13 November for the annual Business Higher Education Round Table (BHERT) Awards could have testified that there is no shortage of extraordinary partnerships between Australian universities, companies, and community organisations.
The BHERT Awards are in their 21st year, celebrating the very best university-based partnerships in the country. The winners are those collaborations that not only demonstrate impact at a national level, but also derive their value from an innovative approach to bringing disparate cultures together. In 2018, BHERT had the highest number of submissions ever received and, in the view of a high-calibre panel of judges, the entrants boasted the greatest quality and diversity of initiatives yet seen.
2018’s winners include:
The partnerships recognised by BHERT are not overnight sensations; they have been in place for several decades, saved lives, generated millions of dollars in GDP, resulted in new companies, and shaped the way we support disadvantaged communities.
Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO, is leading the call for a better understanding of Australia’s collaboration performance. Like BHERT, he sees the OECD 2015 analysis as a flawed representation of Australia’s performance. An attitudinal survey using 2011 numbers, where the survey base does not match that for the other OECD nations, cannot accurately reflect Australian universities’ collaborative efforts.
That being said, there does need to be a measure of our performance and potential. BHERT’s British sister organisation, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), publishes a ‘State of the Relationship’ report each year, which has a total of 16 different indicators organised into four categories:
The performance of each indicator is compared with its own five-year average. The NCUB metric is complex, but it does a thorough job of assessing the extent, diversity, and engagement of university partnerships. BHERT supports the Chief Scientist’s call for a better measure of Australian university collaboration performance, which the Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science is currently exploring. In the meantime, BHERT places great weight on empirical and economic measures.
There are several available:
Some powerful examples of current university–industry collaborations include:
BHERT is not calling for complacency; our message is that Australia is doing well in many aspects of industry–university collaboration, but that we can do much better. Moreover, to drive economic growth and to properly address many of our societal challenges, enhanced partnerships between our universities and our companies and industries are essential.
It’s largely agreed that the most significant areas of improvement in Australia are the engagement of small to medium-sized enterprises with universities, and the translation of research and development into economic outcomes and products.
There is considerable activity underway already to address these challenges. Notably, a cross-sectoral summit – hosted by the Group of Eight universities (Go8) and BHERT in Canberra on 29 October – took initial steps towards a new conversation. Go8 and BHERT brought together around 50 leaders, including the CEOs of 15 small to medium-sized enterprises, to discuss industry–university collaboration. The group identified opportunities to overcome barriers to partnerships, including:
Collaboration is often costly, requiring new investment and dedication of resources. This also presents risk, with there being no guarantee of productive outcomes for all parties.
The summit therefore addressed ways to optimise government support of business–university research collaboration, with key takeaways being a need for reframed department thinking, and a call for smarter policies and direct funding instead of the current tax rebate mechanisms.
With the government’s innovation initiatives currently stalling, however, companies and universities are taking the lead, and working to establish operating frameworks in the absence of policy direction.
BHERT’s aim, along with numerous partners such as the Go8, is to change the dialogue around industry– university collaboration in Australia.
Critically, the national conversation has shifted from innovation to collaboration, with the focus now being on real partnerships between real companies and universities, producing real products, real financial outcomes, real jobs, and real benefits to Australia. In many ways, collaboration is the new innovation, with successful collaboration offering great potential for Australia. It is up to us to keep the momentum going.
Driving collaboration across business, industry and tertiary education.
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