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Universities need to serve regional economy, society – OECD

Many large universities conduct research and teaching as if they are isolated from the society and region around them. But even the desire to become world-class can be achieved by better serving their locality, a conference on higher education-industry-community engagement in Asia heard.

Speaking at the conference hosted by the new universities network AsiaEngage and held at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia from 7-9 May, Jaana Puukka, an analyst for the OECD, said that by better serving their local area universities can “tackle globalisation at a local level”.

“Governments everywhere are trying to mobilise education to drive their social and economic development,” said Puukka, an expert on regional development in the OECD’s Programme on International Management in Higher Education. But, she added: “This is not functioning very well. In some countries and cities they stay in their ivory towers.”

In particular in Asia, where many countries are upgrading research universities in a drive for world-class status, institutions neglect their important role as a regional hub for research and innovation that would better serve the industries and businesses around them and fuel economic development.

Universities can be both world-class and a regional hub. “You can use the region as a laboratory,” Puukka said. For example, world-class research can be done on climate issues by tapping into local patterns and their effects on the population.

Even at regional level, universities need to collaborate more to tackle global problems.

“International, world-class research is collaborative but there is a lack of understanding that you need to tackle these issues at a local level to make changes. It is quite noticeable that in the big catastrophes, local institutions go their own way,” she said.

Although institutions are reaching for research excellence, the OECD has found in a series of studies on “Higher Education in Regional and City Development” that universities need to build on existing strengths and competitive advantages in their region.

“Not every institution can be world-class according to the narrow criteria [of international university rankings] but they can be best in the region,” Puukka told University World News during the conference.

There are a lot of efforts to build ‘Silicon Valleys’ around the world with huge investment in science and technology research.

“But even in Silicon Valley, what is the percentage of the population that have jobs in high-tech? In California it is only 12%. In the US it is 6% overall. In Israel, that high-tech wonder, it is just 5%. The rest is public sector or low tech,” she pointed out.

And often it is not in universities where research and development is happening; it is in the region itself.

ICT, nanotech and biotechnology are facilitating industry. “Many regional governments want to focus on that and it also becomes the university focus.” Often if a critical research mass is reached, this can drive the regional economy.

However, Puukka said, patents based on university research are usually commercialised elsewhere, so innovation “does not feed into the local economy – it goes outside the region”.

Penang state example

She cited the example of Penang state in Malaysia, the subject of a 2011 OECD study in the “Higher Education in Regional and City Development” series.

Penang is “threatened and pushed in two directions” to compete against both high-income Asian countries with more research and development investment and low-cost countries that can manufacture cheaply. It also suffers from a skills gap and a brain drain to Singapore.

“It has to move up the value chain,” said Puukka, citing the OECD’s recommendations from the study. The region needs to invest in human capital and skills, particularly in underserved populations.

Rather than pouring money into science and technology research, which in some cases is favouring postgraduate education to the detriment of undergraduate education needed to upgrade the region’s skills, universities “need to ensure study programmes are aligned to the needs of the region” and respond more to key challenges and regional assets.

This could include the social sciences, the arts and teaching education, some of which would help to reverse the brain drain out of Penang state.
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