Fundamental change is required to the Australian university system to ensure that university-business collaborations consistently produce valuable outcomes. That is my hypothesis based on 25 years’ experience engaging with the university sector to deliver outcomes to businesses and government agencies. The change required can be categorised into three areas – mutual understanding, strategy, and structure.
Based on my experience from the defense and technology sectors, I believe that there is a lack of mutual understanding of the challenges, motivations, incentives and operational environment of both sides of the business-university relationship.
University staff often do not appreciate that businesses in Australia are very different to business elsewhere in the world, particularly the USA which is often used as an example when comparing the size of research funding from industry.
By-in-large, Australian industry tends to be project-centric, i.e. companies operate on a project-to-project basis producing bespoke solutions to a customer need. This is very much the case in the defense sector. By contrast, companies in the USA, Japan and many European countries are generally product-centric, i.e. they develop products for a specific market and as a result their survival depends on the success of products rather than the success of winning projects. As a result of their project-centric nature, many Australian companies take a short-term and tactical perspective on research and development (R&D). Their investment in R&D is motivated generally by two factors – (1) will it help the company get an edge over their competitors when bidding for a project or (2) will it help to de-risk aspects of a proposed solution. Both motivations result in the need for very applied R&D with a focus on delivering outcomes in a short timeframe, e.g. 1-2 years.
In contrast, product-centric companies (think Apple, Google, Microsoft or my old company Motorola) generally operate with well-defined product roadmaps and, as a result, have a longer-term view of R&D (often 5+ years). As a consequence, they are more likely to invest in fundamental/ blue-sky research.
My interaction with universities is that they generally do not appreciate this difference – university staff often lament the fact that Australian companies do not invest in long term research like their counterparts at US universities experience. My experience is that those universities and researchers who do focus on short-term applied R&D are highly valued by industry – this often results in repeat R&D collaborations and even engagement on long-term, fundamental research. To emphasise this fact, I often say to university researchers – start off with “r&D” and then “R&d” will result!
It is my strong belief that we have too many universities in Australia and most of them are focusing on an unsustainably broad portfolio of research areas. Moreover, there is a need for the overall university sector to focus on a smaller number of areas of national strategic importance and then, as a country, we should “double down” on these areas, i.e. invest more significantly in a small number of areas that will make a real difference to the country. We should then align our universities (with some consolidation and rationalisation during the process) to those areas.
For example, the World Economic Forum in their report “The Next Economic Growth Engine, Scaling Fourth Industrial Revolution Technologies in Production”¹ and Data61 in their report “Digital Innovation: Australia’s $315b opportunity”² highlight the international and national importance of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The importance of AI/ML has been recognised by the Australian university sector and as a result almost every university now has some level of AI/ML activity. We would be far better off as a nation to consolidate our investment in this important area to a small number of universities (e.g. centres of excellence) and “double down” our investment in those COEs to achieve internationally competitive scale and significance.
From my perspective, universities have three major responsibilities – (1) generate new knowledge (fundamental research), (2) impart knowledge to students and the broader society (teaching) and (3) translate knowledge into innovation (applied research). However, I do not believe all universities should focus on all three responsibilities. We would be better off having specialist teaching universities or specialist research universities. However, to cover all three responsibilities, it should be divided among specialist groups and staff. For example, having dedicated staff who focus on fundamental research or teaching, or applied/industry focused research would help to ensure that staff are aligned to their individual strengths.
However, to achieve such a structural change would require fundamental changes to university funding models, university performance measures, staff incentives and performance measures, promotion criteria and so on. Such a change would also give businesses clarity about who in a university they should engage with and for what purpose.
When universities and businesses collaborate effectively, the results can be outstanding. I’ve seen this first hand during my career, however, it has generally been because of the excellence of specific researchers rather than a purposely designed collaboration strategy and framework. In this opinion piece, I’ve offered some thoughts on the fundamental changes I believe are required at a national level to achieve consistently excellent collaborations between business and university. If implemented, they will have a significant impact on how the Australian university will look in 2040.
1 https://www.weforum.org/whitepapers/ the-next-economic-growth-engine-scaling fourth-industrial-revolution-technologies in-production
2 https://www.data61.csiro.au/en/Our-Work/ Future-Cities/Planning-sustainable-infrastructure/ Digital-Innovation
Dr. Sanjay Mazumdar is the CEO of Data to Decisions Cooperative Research Centre (D2D CRC), a collaboration between government, industry and academia established to tackle the big data challenges of national security. He has also been the CEO of the Defence Systems Innovation Centre, Head of Engineering for BAE Systems Australia, Operations Manager at Motorola Australia and R esearch Scientist at the DSTO. In 2015, Sanjay was listed in The Australian newspaper’s Knowledge Nation 100 as a “Big Data Pioneer”.
Sanjay holds a Bachelor of Engineering (First Class Hons) and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) from The University of Adelaide, and is a Fellow, Institution of Engineers (FIEAust) and a Chartered Professional Engineer (CPEng). Sanjay is also a Board Director of Fivecast and NQRY, two spinouts companies generated by the D2D CRC.