Navigating the industry-academia partnership terrain

An increasing global emphasis on innovation in universities calls for greater cooperation between higher education institutions and industry, partners with different missions and cultures. How is this best achieved in practice? The recent RHEDI – Research, Higher Education, Development and Innovation – meeting in Malaysia provided an opportunity for research leaders and managers to compare approaches.

Most countries have in place some form of national innovation system which serves as a general framework within which technology and knowledge are organised and flow between various institutions, each of which play different but complimentary roles in the development of new technologies.

Common to all systems are government policies that attempt to influence the innovation process.

Links programmes

According to Dr Glenda Kruss, director in the education and skills development programme of the Human Sciences Research Council, the South African government has actively encouraged the promotion of university-industry linkages since the late 1990s through a number of programmes – all with “varying degrees of success”. These have included:
  • • Incentive programmes in response to the 1996 White Paper foregrounding the promotion of university-industry linkages.
  • • A government-private industry partnership called Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme – THRIP – which funded universities and science council researchers in collaboration with industry researchers.
  • • An Innovation Fund that supported a number of university researchers and encouraged the development of intellectual property and commercialisation.
  • • A Technology Stations programme in universities of technology, to provide design and prototyping support to small- to medium-sized enterprises, with regional specialisations.
  • • The establishment or hosting by a number of universities in the early 2000s, especially the former Afrikaans universities, of various external interface structures to foster university links with firms, some with government incentivisation and funding – such as commercial holding companies, incubators, science parks and technology platforms.
  • • Of direct relevance to the university sector currently is the relatively new Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research and Development (IPR) legislation – loosely modelled on America’s Bayh-Dole Act about the exploitation of IP funded from public money – which has made it mandatory for every university to have a technology transfer office (they can share regionally).
Following an OECD review in 2008, most of the above initiatives were centralised under the Technology Innovation Agency, said Kruss.

The agency aims to stimulate and intensify technological innovation in order to improve economic growth and the quality of life of all South Africans by developing and exploiting technological innovations.

This is in line with recent policy shifts that have placed more emphasis on socio-economic development goals that favour the poor and socially marginalised in South Africa. Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande is on record as saying in 2012 that the “triple-helix of government, higher education and industry leaves out the important component of community engagement and outreach”.

Navigating relationships

For RHEDI ambassador for South Africa and former national minister Thoko Didiza, the RHEDI meeting in Malaysia provided an effective forum to discuss how to manage the complex interface between higher education and industry in the context of dwindling public sector funding and the need to ensure that research conducted produced some benefit for the broader community.

“The question of higher education and innovation has become more important. The issue is how to navigate these relationships in the academic environment, either as a researcher or at a management level. This includes how research will benefit the community,” she said.

According to Didiza, who is currently a project consultant with the University of South Africa’s Archie Mafeje Research Institute, industry-university relations do work in South Africa, but not in a coordinated or organised way.

“At RHEDI we were looking at how best to assist universities so that these linkages are not an ad hoc thing. The work of organisational development of a university is spread out in higher education in a range of faculties. And coordination can be difficult.”

That linkages can be defined as ‘ad hoc’ in spite of national frameworks is partly a legacy of apartheid.


Research figures show that most research is produced by a handful of the country’s 23 institutions of higher learning, which are seen as desirable partners to industry to the exclusion of previously-disadvantaged institutions.

As Didiza notes: “Where universities have the capacity, it is possible to find partnerships."

But capacity across the current higher education system is by no means consistent. Thus Nzimande has also articulated concerns about the danger of research agendas being dictated by commercial considerations, which would reproduce existing inequalities in the higher education sector.

According to Didiza, another of the minister’s concerns is the quality of graduates of technical vocational education and training institutions and the mismatch between industry needs and graduate skills.

“So I don’t think there is a working formula yet,” she said. “South Africa is still going through transition and the situation is evolving.”

Autonomy and difference

Didiza said that despite significant government involvement in the higher education sector, there was nevertheless an openness on the part of the ministries of higher education and training, and science and technology, to facilitating a “conversation” between various parties and allowing space for the academic community to influence government positions.

This was in contrast to the situation in Vietnam where, according to Pham Thi Mai Khanh, a lecturer in economics and international business at the Foreign Trade University in Vietnam, freedom to build links with industry was limited by government control over academic activities.

“A unique characteristic of the Vietnamese higher education system is [government] control over much activity, so we do not have so much freedom,” she said.

“It is clear that because of our own limitations we can do it from the bottom up because it is not possible from the top down.”

There were plenty of efforts involving universities in Vietnam emanating from the bottom up, she said, including institutions where management of such efforts has been installed. “But for progress to be evident, we need to wait for a critical mass,” she said.

Acknowledging the different missions of universities and industry, Didiza said it was important that universities did not “compromise” their teaching and learning responsibilities for the sake of partnerships.

“For the university it may mean getting someone in who divides their time between industry and the university. This borders on issues of management and leadership of universities. But it is important for exposure of universities’ scientists to contribute to society.”

Acknowledging differences

Kruss told University World News that her work over the years has indicated that the role of individual ‘academic entrepreneurs’ with strong scientific reputations is key to successful partnerships.

Such individuals must, naturally, be supported by institutional mechanisms and funding, which in turn are supported by government funding and policy mechanisms, she said.

“Personally, and based on my research in general, I do not believe declaring that all IP from publicly funded research must be exploited will work on a wider scale, without an engagement with the fundamental role of universities as knowledge generating institutions, and showing the value of such exploitation to academics and universities,” said Kruss.