Varied pathways to university innovation partnerships

Examples of successful models of university partnerships for innovation, as well as challenges encountered, were shared by African and international experts at the annual conference of the South African Technology Network.

SATN is an umbrella body representing universities of technology in South Africa and Namibia, and its 9th Annual International SATN Conference held in Cape Town from 12-14 October had partnerships for innovation and development as the theme.

The focus was on partnerships between universities, the private sector and government. But international partnerships are of growing importance and universities of technology were challenged to come up with their requirements for internationalisation by Chief Mabizela, head of university policy and development in South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training.

South Africa has some 75,000 international students and a large number of visiting professors and other academics. Apart from increased mobility of academics, students and professionals, there are numerous collaborative research and study initiatives in place.

“There are collaborative qualifications being offered in terms of university partnerships, and these must be retained as long as they have value to add,” Mabizela said. The government, however, does not encourage dual qualifications, which grant students two qualifications from participating universities for the price of one.

South Africa is developing a higher education internationalisation policy, and universities will be expected to develop their internationalisation policies aligned to this framework. A draft national policy is already available and will be discussed in early 2017.

Collaboration in Namibia

Dr Marius Kudumo, director of international relations at the Namibia University of Science and Technology, said collaboration and partnerships were strong institutional goals and helped to promote internationalisation.

Governments and universities continue to be concerned about quality, equity, relevance and the responsiveness of higher education, while the Sustainable Development Goals emphasise education for global citizenship – “We try to make this work together,” Kudumo said.

The university has a local partnership model that aims to integrate academic theory and knowledge with work experience. A 2011 study revealed that 80% of students obtain jobs by the second year after graduation, and more than 60% have work learning exposure.

Kudumo said success is constrained by Namibia’s small economy – which limits the number of placement opportunities for students, especially in the human sciences – as well as the absence of a national internship policy and negative attitudes among students.

Zero budget from Hungary

Dr Tibor Döry is an associate professor and managing director of Mobolis Közhasznú, a non-profit initiative at Széchenyi István University in Györ, Hungary. The institution is located in the country’s most dynamic economic area.

Döry said young, dynamic leadership that was quick and flexible in reacting to demands, had enabled the university to forge a strong partnership with industry. The university adopted a zero-budget planning process, which although at first resisted by staff was eventually adopted and made to work.

He said frequent engagement with local government had stimulated joint investment, resulting in a new stadium and dormitories being developed.

Széchenyi István University started working with a key partner, the car manufacturer Audi, on a small-scale collaboration 20 years ago and the partnership has blossomed and resulted in 1,500 graduates over the years for Audi’s operations, said Döry.

From one institute it has grown to establish six institutes with Audi. The university supports student competitions and has a ‘Formula Student’ racing team. It also has a SZEnergy project to develop an alternative drive vehicle, and a SZEngine project to create a one-cylinder engine.

There had been failures as well as successes. “The university failed in terms of traditional technology transfer, and opted to focus less on patents and more on application-oriented collaborative projects with industry,” he said.

Partnerships are about people

Partnerships and collaborations are always about people and the issues that influence their thinking, according to Professor Ryk Lues, director of the Centre for Applied Food Safety and Biotechnology at Central University of Technology, Free State, and coordinator of the Regional Innovation Forum for the Free State, a province in South Africa.

“The issues that can affect a person’s desire to collaborate and make a contribution are generally personal in nature, and are seldom systemically inspired. If one starts talking to the human factor and aims to address the issues that affect people, you have a greater chance of a positive engagement,” he added.

Central University of Technology or CUT has a long-term plan that lays out critical pre-conditions for innovative partnerships. “Social and technologically innovative programmes must inform academic, research and skills development initiatives,” said Lues.

CUT is in the process of establishing a craft brewery, and participated in a national craft beer competition. While the students did not win the prize for the best beer, they did get the prize for the best team spirit.

He said the university works closely with local and national government, and has over time identified that in order to be responsive in its service offerings it must focus on the needs of local government offices, and build a strong, trust-based relationship.

At an institutional level, infrastructure, sound financial management and strong leadership are critical and should be developed.

Lues said lessons from engagements the university had undertaken included showing up and engaging, adapting and being inclusive. “Listen and provide advice, but don’t criticise – give advice that solves the problem.” Also, there should be sustained contributions in terms of expertise and resources, and trust should be established and maintained.

Support for research in South Africa

The importance of support at the national level was stressed by Dr Kaluke Mawila, executive director for institutional engagement and partnership development at South Africa’s National Research Foundation. The political environment in South Africa is very supportive of research and innovation.

“It is important to reconceptualise our collective thinking about innovation, to make it relevant to our own contexts and communities,” Mawila said.

She added that most of the country’s problems tended to be of a social nature, meaning that attempts to solve problems should be made from a social perspective. Greater collaboration between researchers and technologists in the social sciences would be essential.

It would also be necessary to address issues like equity, by bringing women into the conversation on innovation and feminising technology. Mawila challenged SATN to identify and support more women to play a role in innovation.

The National Research Foundation and Department of Trade and Industry ran THRIP – the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme – creating training mechanisms and funding opportunities between industry partners and the academy.

THRIP, which recently ended after 20 years, managed to raise R250 million (US$17 million) from industry, over and above major investments from government.

Mawila said the joint programme succeeded for so long because it addressed the objectives of developing researchers, doing research and developing products for the market place between knowledge producers and those whose purpose is to apply that knowledge.