Are we crap at University-Industry collaboration, or do we just think we are?

Is there any university that has a Strategic Plan that doesn’t say it will become more engaged with industry?

Of course, stating an aspiration in a Strategic Plan doesn’t mean anything happens. Especially in a university, where the culture means many employees have a greater chance of finding the Higgs boson particle than the organisation’s Strategic Plan (and a good thing too).

A couple of things have come over my desk today that indicate we have a long way to go in improving university-industry engagement. The first was the synopsis for a workshop at Collaborate | Innovate | 2012 to be lead by Ben Apted of SPP. It read, in part: “Demystifying industry engagement Researchers able to engage effectively with industry can reap significant rewards. Why then are the stories of success seen more as exemplars rather than the norm?”

The second thing was GE Australia and New Zealand’s release of the Milken Institute’s Innovation Barometer. Milken rates Australia as a leader in the field of university-industry collaboration. But they say that “surprisingly”, only 64% of GE Innovation Survey respondents said it was easy for companies to partner with universities.

Maybe the problem is with definitions and perceptions? “Engagement” has become the favoured term but it’s definition has lots of wriggle room. It can mean a “betrothal”, a “promise” or even a “hostile condition”, none of which convey what institutional planners want – more than a promise, less than a wedding and certainly not hostile.

Somewhere in the mix, the apirations of the collaborating parties need to be considered. Universities usually hope that industry engagement will confer relevance, reputation and money. Industry likes a smorgasbord approach of knowing what’s going on, with the ability to delve deeper when it suits. Project agreements often don’t address any of these aspirations.

Having seen some of SPP’s data, it’s clear there are big differences across Australian univerisities in their success in industry engagement. I doubt Australia is much different to other western countries in this respect. The Milken data indicate Australia does have a at least a relatively good level of government support for university-industry engagement. The GE Survey indicates many businesses don’t think it is easy to partner with Universities, but a majority do find it easy.

If both sectors want more and better engagement; government resources are there to help, and some players are already doing it well, then I’m going to conclude we are maybe doing better than we think. But with lots of room still available for improvement. Sure, lots of barriers, but none that are unassailable.