Partnerships for bridging the academia-industry divide

How best to forge mutually beneficial ties between universities and industry as a means to produce work-ready graduates is a perennial debate among universities of technology in South Africa. But there is a growing sense of urgency around the issue as the country struggles with high youth unemployment and lower economic growth forecasts.

The recent South African Technology Network or SATN conference highlighted the ongoing challenges – but also some of the successes – in this arena.

As reflected in the theme of the 9th Annual SATN Conference – “Partnerships for Innovation and Development: Making it happen. Making it matter” – universities of technology have embraced the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation as some of the best tools available to tackle South Africa’s socio-economic challenges of unemployment, inequality and growth.

In the words of recently appointed SATN chair and Tshwane University of Technology vice-chancellor, Lourens van Staden, universities of technology should not only be producing workplace-ready graduates, but entrepreneurs ready to make their own jobs.

Floating the idea of an executive portfolio for innovation and entrepreneurship that would co-ordinate efforts across the universities of technology sector and drive partnerships with government and the private sector, Van Staden said in the opening session that universities of technology were best placed to be “catalysts” for the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem and “advocates” for innovation and entrepreneurship activities.

He called for students to have more direct engagement with entrepreneurs – as both role models and teachers. Teaching and learning needed to be more innovative and entrepreneurial in approach, he said, and students should be given more opportunities to move from the realm of ideas to the realm of action.


None of this is possible without inter-sectoral partnerships – a reality recognised by the existence of working partnerships between SATN and a range of partners, including the Technology Innovation Agency, which has jointly with SATN recently launched a masters support programme in waste sciences and waste management, various sector education and training authorities or SETAs, and private sector partners such as the Durban International Convention Centre or ICC – all of which were represented at the conference.

SATN and the ICC have recently forged a successful partnership which sees universities of technology students placed within the ICC for periods ranging from six months in the case of current students, to a year in the case of graduates. The candidates gain practical and relevant work experience in a world-class facility, and are paid a monthly stipend.

“In return we have an opportunity to give back to the city through the development of human capacity,” Durban ICC CEO Lindiwe Rakharebe told University World News. “We were created for economic impact.”

According to Rakharebe, over the 2014-15 financial year the company contributed R4.6 billion (US$318 million) to the national gross domestic product, R4.5 billion to the province’s gross geographic product and created and sustained 10,874 direct and indirect jobs. It contributed R986 million to indirect household income of which R469 million flowed to low-income households.

Importantly, the partnership gives individual students real-world work experience in a world-class conference facility during which time they are exposed to all aspects of the convention centre including marketing, sales, events, finance, human resources, facilities management, and health and safety.

Sectoral training authority

Another “vibrant and successful” partnership has been put in place between SATN and the Energy and Water Sector Education and Training Authority or EWSETA, one of 21 sectoral training authorities established in terms of the Skills Development Act of 1998 to ensure execution of the national skills and development strategy.

According to EWSETA CEO Errol Gradwell, the relationship between SETAs and universities of technology was “a serious priority” in South Africa. “Projects should be taken either to scale or to the market – that link is missing. SETA has a mandate to be that link in the specific sectors and I think that’s something we need to pursue very aggressively,” he told conference delegates.

“Our work is similar to what the chambers of business in Germany do: bringing education and training institutions, including TVET [technical and vocational education and training] colleges and universities of technology, closer to industry,” Gradwell told University World News on the sidelines of the conference.

“We are not concerned with training for the sake of training or to graduate unemployed graduates. We work from a skills demand and supply point of view. Working with industry, we are responsible for anticipating, assessing and determining what industry needs, and for quality, accreditation and certification of the necessary educational and training qualifications in our sector.”

Economic development

He described the relationship between SATN and his SETA as a “very successful and vibrant partnership” aimed at aligning initiatives and programmes within institutions towards economic development.

Some examples of these initiatives include the R42 million EWSETA grant towards bursaries at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology at the end of last year to enable 45 students to study environmental science and environmental management. At the Central University of Technology, EWSETA is keen to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the introduction of the country’s first advanced diploma in renewable energy, and is seeking to support a research chair at the institution.

The Tshwane University of Technology is part of a South African consortium of universities which, with assistance from EWSETA, successfully secured European Union funding to develop a programme around water purification. Plans are also underway to involve universities of technology in a renewable energy research and development hub planned for the Northern Cape.

A new project, to be launched by the Department of Higher Education and Training, is the rural and township economic revitalisation programme. A key focus of the EWSETA, the programme aims to provide – through universities of technology and other institutions – unemployed youths with the technical skills needed to start their own businesses and service their communities.

View from industry

In a roundtable discussion aimed at interrogating the industry-academia link, KPMG South Africa director and president of the Business Women's Association of South Africa, Farzanah Mall, said the key to successful links between business and universities was a clear understanding of the intended outcomes of any proposed partnership for both parties.

Although acknowledging that universities were constrained by having multiple stakeholders, Mall said they were sometimes not clear enough about what they wanted.

“Universities are not fully capitalising by asking the right questions or making clear proposals,” she said. “Beyond workplace practice and opportunities for students, there are also opportunities for academia to benefit and even explore alternative funding models.”

Mall also emphasised the need to measure and reflect the impact of partnerships. She said proposals from universities tended to be more concept driven rather than outcomes driven and the measurement of delivery and impact needed to be enhanced.

Donnee Kruger, manager of Trade and Investment KwaZulu-Natal, emphasised the importance of having an operational plan incorporating tangible events and milestones rather than a broad memorandum of understanding.

Professor Waswa Balunywa, principal of Makerere University Business School in Uganda, said clear objectives and mutual interests would ensure the longevity of a partnership. “If one party is not doing what they are supposed to, the relationship ends,” he said.

While it was important for universities to make themselves relevant to the needs of industry, this was difficult in small countries like Uganda where research was underfunded, he said.

Alignment of interests

While the need for clear outcomes and monitoring was agreed by most discussants, it had to be recognised that the interests of the sectors did not always align. Industry had a distinct profit motive and was driven by shorter deadlines and possessed greater adaptive capacities and quicker decision-making systems.

Van Staden said while he agreed that universities needed to nurture a culture for strategic, vibrant and meaningful partnerships, partnerships should never be about financial gain.

“Universities are not about profit. Third stream income provides an opportunity to develop more learning opportunities or develop more human resources in the context of dwindling funding,” he said.

Professor Suki KK Mwendwa, deputy vice-chancellor for technology, innovation and partnerships at the Technical University of Kenya, said that the two “cultures” represented by academia and business necessitated a continuous engagement between parties to develop effective demand-driven competency-based training programmes.

“We have found that once we engage in competency-based training, there are other ways to engage industry, identify gaps in their training needs and improve their efficiency.

“Within that relationship it is important for universities to show what they can do. Industry has to make money and their time frames are shorter than those of academia. But if you show how you can add value and help each other, there can be progress.”

Sharing his institution’s experience of the needs of the extractive oil and gas sector, which he said had “put us on our toes” by calling for 8,000 trained people over five years, Mwendwa said his institution’s experience had helped him realise the need for a parallel system, focused on modules and smaller units, which could respond quickly to industry demands.

A new age

At the heart of the debate is relevance and adaptation. Universities are required to meet not only the demands of industry, but the demands of society, and the changing needs of their student bodies.

In arguing for teaching and learning to be more innovative in their approach, Van Staden made the point that students of today learn “differently” – an observation reinforced the following day by Professor Neal King, chairman of the board of directors and president emeritus of the International Association of University Presidents, who said that the advent of the “digital native” (brought up with digital technologies) represented a “new age” in education.

A psychologist by training, King said the field of neuropsychology was now grappling with early evidence that incoming students process information differently to their predecessors; that the new generation of student is neurologically hardwired differently and, as a result, out of sync with the professoriate and other traditional stakeholders in higher education.

“There is an intergenerational divide between board members, faculty and funders and new students, and digital natives are registering less relevance in what they are seeing in higher education,” he said.

Calling for “disruptive technologies” and “disruptive leadership” in higher education at all levels, King said there was a need to support individuals in adapting to the new era without losing sight of a broader vision of higher education opportunities for everyone.

In King’s view, it’s a vision worth fighting for.

“Visionary leaders throughout time have recognised the role of education in informing and reforming societies… Our sector has a role to play in helping the world to navigate difficult times and come out richer, better, more fully understanding one another and assisting those less fortunate,” he said.