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GLOBAL: The crisis, business and higher education

Joe Astroth wants to be a change agent. As chief education officer of US-based high-tech giant Autodesk, Astroth is playing a leading role in the company's continuing bid to create stronger links between industry and academia. It is a role he relishes. The global recession, Astroth said, has changed the environment facing businesses and universities alike. "The economic crisis has brought us together in an accelerated manner," he told University World News at the 2010 OECD higher education conference in Paris.

"We both now know that we need to do more with less," Astroth added, referring to the major theme of the OECD Institutional Management in Higher Education event from 13-15 September, Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less.

Astroth spoke to University World News at the end of the conference, providing a corporate perspective on what the recession has taught business and universities alike.

At the heart of Astroth's bid to build new bridges is Autodesk's massive roster of curriculum and research partnerships with higher education institutions worldwide. The company spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on academic partnerships. More than two million students at 50,000 institutions worldwide are trained on its industry-leading design software each year.

By training architecture, engineering and design students on the software giant's programmes during their studies, Autodesk hopes graduates will be "industry-ready when they leave the halls of higher education", Astroth said. Some of these design-savvy job seekers may end up actually working for Autodesk, while others will become customers.

But for Astroth, the main point is elsewhere: "We see our role as inspiring the best and brightest to take on the new challenges facing the planet."

While this might sound to some like corporate cheerleading, it would be unfair to accuse Astroth of being an uninvited interloper. With a PhD in computer cartography and spatial analysis from the University of Chicago and a first career teaching at the University of Missouri, Astroth walked the walk before he started talking the talk. The academic credentials provide priceless credibility when Astroth evangelises the university community.

UWN: Public-private partnerships were a very big theme at this conference. Do you think the recession has accelerated the move to PPPs in higher education?

Astroth: Absolutely, and that's the main point I made in my plenary address. Universities have to do more with less, and so does industry. Yet we also have these major challenges: first, the economic crisis; and second, global issues like climate change, the environment and HIV-Aids. We have to work together to prepare the next generation, which will be taking on these challenges.

UWN: Where is Autodesk right now in terms of public-private partnerships?

Astroth: It's multi-faceted. First we have deep relationships with faculty at about 200 universities worldwide, where we are helping re-engineer curricula or directly sponsoring faculty and student research. We are also fostering broad relationships with about 1,000 universities, through software grants, and in some cases training faculty and students to use our technology.

Finally, we have a web portal, the Autodesk Education Community, which is used by more than 1.5 million students and faculty members worldwide. The portal offers full-time students free downloads on 20 industrial-grade, fully-functional software products.

There's also an assistance programme for workers who've lost their job in about a dozen countries. You get laid off, and you want to learn one of our products, you can download it free of charge. There's training materials, blogs for feedback. This isn't appealing to traditional students, but people who want to retool themselves as we come out of the recession.

UWN: What must universities do to increase the number and scope of their partnerships? Or to put it another way, when you consider a potential partner, what are you looking for from them?

Astroth: For starters, it has to be a true partnership. We have to get something in return. This can be a tough conversation, when we explain that we're not just handing out research grants. What we really want is to have an exchange with faculty and students. It's not just 'gimme, gimme, gimme'.

There are universities who want to put up walls around their intellectual property, who say, 'You can't take anything away from the relationship, or if you do, there's some stiff royalty payment.' That's not a real partnership.

We're bringing a tremendous amount of our own intellectual property: we're spending on training; we're inviting people into our labs. So it has to be a two-way street, where both sides are sharing something.

What we're really not looking for is a 35-page document written by lawyers!

UWN: Besides direct training, and funding in some instances, what happens during the partnerships?

Astroth: Magic happens on both sides. Students get exposed to our best and brightest software engineers, which can inspire them. Students and faculty get tapped into our worldwide community. Autodesk has more than 50 research and development centres worldwide, and our top partners are plugged into this knowledge base.

Students are always coming up with new and interesting product ideas, things for the iPad, the iPhone or the Android smartphone system. They help our engineers think outside the box.

UWN: I sat in on an interesting conference presentation by a researcher from a German bank, who said universities need to develop a more 'project-oriented' outlook. In this vision, academic departments work with private enterprises on specific projects, with students simultaneously learning and serving as labour. Is this the way forward?

Astroth: He's absolutely right. The project-based approach is the way to go. It lets students take the base of knowledge they get in the classroom, and put it to use. The learning curve goes up exponentially.

At the same time, if you give students a real product problem to work on, we obviously get something out of it. But what's really exciting is changing the learning environment. Hands-on projects are what really engage students. Not something a faculty member came up with in his office, but really interesting real-world engineering problems.

We're doing this at Stanford University, in a mechanical engineering course, where students take on year-long project-based courses for industry partners. In one case, the class worked with a start-up that wanted to make a sustainable laptop that could be disassembled and totally recycled.

You put the problem to students and they have to work through it, from beginning to end. A lot goes into solving the problem, and not just engineering. There's the question of what functions would a consumer want, the recycling elements, and it still has to look cool. It can get inter-disciplinary, when you can bring in the business school students to talk about the price a customer will pay, the material costs.

UWN: Isn't there a risk of universities losing their direction, as general places for learning, in this new bid to be profitable and relevant to business?

Astroth: You still need knowledge. So there will always be room for classroom instruction, for reading the literature. But we have to be smarter about how we present this to students.

When I was a university student, the library was the place where information came from. That was where you went for the journals, the books, the basic information. Today we've dramatically cut the learning curve. You go to Google and you're exposed instantly to the information you're looking for.

This means the role of the university is changing, particularly in terms of how it helps students filter through information and understand different concepts. And that's just where hands-on learning comes into play.

The real question today is how do we get students engaged in learning, in this world where they're already bombarded with stimulus and information? I think we do it by taking a hands-on, project-based approach. They need to see the relevance of what they're studying.

UWN: Autodesk was a big sponsor of the IMHE conference. Why were you here? Was it evangelising the products; making contacts; to hear what universities have to say?

Astroth: We want to be a positive change agent. We truly believe there's a need to change the way higher education is approaching the problem of educating students. We don't want to be on the outside, complaining that we're not getting what we need from universities. We want to be part of the solution. And that means driving change, by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with academics and inspiring students.
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