What is UniSA Getting Right ?

The University of South Australia is one of the top universities involved in Cooperative Research Centres. When Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane recently announced three new Cooperative Research Centres, UniSA was present once again, this time as host University for the Data to Decisions CRC which will focus on a range of national defence issues. In the previous round, UniSA won the right to host the Cell Therapy Manufacturing CRC. UniSA is a large institution, the largest of South Australia’s universities, but it is relatively young. Most other universities performing at the top of the CRC Program are in the Group of Eight (G8) research intensive universities.

So how is such a young university doing so well in attracting industry-based research centres like CRCs?

My observation is that it is principally due to leadership. Leadership that clearly articulates that the university wants to be highly engaged and active with industry and then empowers its staff to do so.

My jobs for 20 years now have involved traveling the nation’s campuses and companies and trying to get the two to work more successfully together. I doubt there is a university in the country whose strategic plan doesn’t say that it wants to be more engaged with industry research. It’s also my observation that many, many researchers are highly attracted to doing research with industries and companies. A few are just attracted by the potential for funding, but they are a minority. Most have plenty to offer.

So it’s normal to have the highest level of support for industry research and strong support from researchers. The grit in the Vaseline of successfully working with industry almost inevitably comes somewhere along the delegation chain between the two. Where UniSA and other successful institutions are different to the norm is that they’ve broken down the barriers to working with industry, so that the commitment of the research staff and the University Council seems to be matched by everyone else in the system.

Industry research is inevitably more administratively troublesome for a university than large government research councils whose guidelines are well established and change relatively slowly. The reaction of administrative staff depends on how much they believe in the vision and mission of any institution. If they truly believe that engagement is valued, they will be engaging. That’s not to say they will accommodate any request from a company; understanding and belief in the university mission isn’t limited to just engagement.

In the case of UniSA, it feels like there are structures and mechanisms in place that researchers can propose major initiatives like a CRC and be given guidance and feedback early on. Researchers seem to have the support to scope a CRC proposal at a very early stage, before they form any set view on whether they will definitely bid and what form the bid will take. So an academic might be the catalyst to a CRC bid, but the needs of the industry involved are firmly at the forefront of the bid. CRCs can’t be simply academic exercises. If they are not initiated by the industry itself, there has to be real sensitivity to the needs of the industry at the very least.

UniSA takes a mature view to when to slow down or speed up a bid. The institute doesn’t seem to hesitate to delay a bid to allow for maturation of the relationship with industry or some other reason like the timing isn’t right for the industry. Both recent wins have been first-time bids, so they seem able to support a bid that gathers momentum.

Tony Peacock

CEO, CRC Association