Missed opportunities for university-business partnerships

Education experts in Mexico say universities are not doing enough to collaborate with the private sector and that there is much untapped potential in research and development, consulting and teacher training.

While most universities have some form of internship programme with nearby businesses and often collaborate in volunteer projects, experts believe these efforts fall short and that universities would benefit from strengthened relations with businesses.

The recent National Study of Institutional Collaboration (ENAVI), which surveyed over 400 universities, found that only 18.36% work with businesses and organisations in teacher development, a mere 16.31% have small business incubators and 54.54% are involved in research and development.

A related survey of Mexican businesses (ENAVES) found that 25% of businesses collaborate, in some form, with institutions of higher learning.

“Despite a larger budget and a greater number of government programmes to encourage collaboration, the majority of activities involving university-industry cooperation are still incomplete and a mismatch between universities and businesses in developing research opportunities persists,” says Sergio Cárdenas, a professor and researcher with the Mexican-based think-tank CIDE.

This discrepancy threatens to handicap Mexico as a competitor on the global stage, Cárdenas says. He referenced a report he co-authored, which highlights the country’s underperformance in research and development.

According to the report, Mexico falls behind all other OECD countries in the amount of private funds spent on research and development (R&D). As a proportion of gross domestic product, money spent on R&D is almost four times lower.

A recent survey of Mexican businesses showed that only 23.15% of firms participate in R&D. Improved partnerships with businesses, Cárdenas says, may create more opportunities for innovation and attract global businesses.

“If Mexico wants to be more competitive and if businesses want to take advantage of the market, a better alignment with universities in training graduates and creating opportunities for innovation seems very relevant,” he says.

Fernando Reimers, director of global education and international education policy at Harvard University, says institutions of higher learning have not kept pace with other developments in Mexico.

“This stagnation of university-industry collaborations in Mexico contrasts deeply with the many changes that have taken place in that country in areas such as international trade, technology, increases in funding for higher education and especially significant increases in access to higher education,” he said.

“It is apparent that this is not an area in which higher education has most visibly evolved.”

Obstacles to R&D collaboration

According to university administrators questioned in the ENAVI study, the greatest obstacle to increased R&D is not having enough knowledge of the opportunities out there (35.28%).

Part of the problem also seems to lie in getting students to free up time to participate in work-placement programmes, with a high number of administrators saying that academic schedules do not allow for any kind of business collaboration.

And when it comes to creating spaces for continuing education, university administrators say the largest obstacle is lack of interest on the part of businesses (50.18%).

But businesses ranked "lack of interest on the part of universities" as the greatest impediment to improved collaboration, followed by "students don’t meet skill set desired by the business" and "excessive paperwork", according to the sister study ENAVES.

“It would be unjust to say that university-business partnerships don’t exist,” Cárdenas says, “but what exists now is just routine. There are many areas for improvement.”

The situation across the region

The recognised need for improved business-university partnerships extends beyond Mexico.

A 2004 World Bank report suggested that “universities are increasingly considered instruments of social and economic development [in Latin America] and face rising expectations in terms of training qualified ‘knowledge workers’”.

Citing a 2005 study by the International Institute for Management Development, the report states that “despite potentially significant returns from collaboration, evidence suggests that linkages between universities and private companies are quite weak in Latin America”.

According to the study, universities are not perceived to be responsive to the needs of industry, emphasising academic research over commercial applications.

However, isolated initiatives to improve university-business collaboration are surfacing throughout the region.

In Nicaragua, The Netherlands government just donated €440,000 (US$575,000) to inspire entrepreneurial skills and professional development at the nexus of the private sector, local government and nearby universities.

Recognising the need for improved business-university partnerships, the Universidad Metropolitana in Venezuela has created a department (CENDECO) dedicated entirely to private sector outreach.

And at the University of the Republic in Uruguay, education leaders have created a commission that allocates roughly 15% of funds to R&D, with priority given to fostering linkages with the private sector.

Reasons why links are important

Harvard’s Fernando Reimers says there are plenty of reasons why universities should look to strengthen their relationship with businesses.

For one, university-business partnerships can help shape professional degree programmes so that graduates better meet the needs of businesses. He feels that if college graduates fail to bring the skill set to the workplace that the country needs, businesses will relocate to other countries.

Partnerships can also help identify opportunities for further business development, and generate research-based knowledge and technologies that can help develop new businesses, Reimers argues. Also, improved collaboration can contribute to the ongoing education of the workforce.

In a recent article from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Reimers wrote: “If universities are to transform themselves into engines of innovation, economic as well as social…They will need to proactively seek to shape the policy agenda…

“They will also need to explicitly provide students opportunities to develop entrepreneurial skills and aptitudes…[and they will need] more fluid communication between universities and various industries and fields of practice.”

He concluded: “As in the past, aligning the university with a new social role will require extraordinary conditions, support and leadership.”