Bridging the gap industry and academia

Posted @ 22:46 21 May 2012

John BostockI was recently at the Techno TN meeting between Erasmus networks active in the field of science and engineering. It was a chance to discuss three key topics of common interest:  (1) New Skills and University-Business cooperation; (2) Attracting  and retaining students; and (3) Tools for enhancing mobility of students and graduates.  Im sure all these topics will be explored further within Aqua-tnet, especially once materials from the workshop become available to share online.

One of the first issues to be discussed however was the communications gap between business and universities. This was a recurring theme whilst discussing a number of topics, and indeed seems to be a regular feature of any meeting discussing research, education or innovation in our sector.  Whilst it is always dangerous to generalise, typical sentiments for instance are that businesses find communicating with universities slow and complex and often consider academics to be out of touch with the issues that are most critical to their business with interests that seem more esoteric. Academics on the other hand can find contact with business to be frustrating when they appear to be interested only in quick fixes and are reluctant to invest in the long-term disciplined research work that finding real solutions can require.  In a competitive world, businesses are instinctively secretive whereas academics are continually under pressure to publish.

Differences in perspective can also appear when discussing the knowledge and skills fostered in university students. Perhaps rather obviously, academics teach not only what they know, but also (consciously or unconsciously) promote the values, skills and ethos of academic endeavour in their students. This has value, especially for students moving on to further study and research. For graduates that subsequently move into business, a culture shock often awaits. Assuming of course that they can find a job to go to!  Few businesses will employ graduates without some previous relevant work experience. They know just how much more such recruits need to learn to be able to contribute effectively in a commercial environment.

What can be done to improve communications and build more effective links? Here are a few thoughts for starters, but this is an issue that really needs a lot more focus and engagement.  Firstly, one of the most positive signs in recent years has been the development of professional forums on the Internet that provide an opportunity for commercial practitioners, academics and students to discuss topics and share experience. One of the most active is the SARNISSA e-mail discussion forum, but there are several other popular e-mail discussion lists and a growing number of special interest groups on social networking sites such as LinkedIn (where the Aqua-tnet project now has a discussion group) and Facebook.

Secondly, there are many opportunities for companies to communicate the demands and priorities of their work through inputs to taught courses. Examples include hosting student visits, giving talks at colleges, or most conveniently these days, giving a short presentation or holding a question and answer session over an Internet video conference link. The Aqua-tnet project is promoting this kind of activity at http://www.aquatnet.com/index.php/137/experience-share/

Thirdly, it is important for academics to communicate clearly with industry to discuss and demonstrate the contribution they are making through research and teaching.  Many channels are available, such as presentations at industry meetings, articles in the trade press, personal or institutional blogs, social networking sites, the making of short videos to post on YouTube, podcasts to share on iTunes, or the distribution of slide-based presentations via Slideshare. Institutions could also give greater consideration to web streaming special seminars or other events to open up participation to a wider industry audience.  

Lastly, there is really no substitute for changing places and working more closely together. Various funding schemes (e.g. EC Marie Curie Fellowships) provide opportunities for academics to spend time working in a commercial business; or for
people from industry to work in academia on specific projects of mutual interest. Useful links for both teaching and research can also be fostered when companies host student projects. Closely related to this is the provision of internships that give young people experience that is useful for career development, as well as giving them greater focus should they go on to further studies. Aqua-tnet is seeking to support this by advertising opportunities via the Education Gate (http://aquatnet.djangofoo.com/)   and enabling young people to express their interest and availability at  http://www.aquatnet.com/index.php/167/internships/

The tools for building bridges are in our hands. So what are the barriers?

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