Universities and industry have been collaborating for well over one hundred years. The principal nature of these collaborations has generally been research focussed, where industry has provided funding for university researchers to tackle strategic projects that drive industry innovation, development and/or contributes to economic growth.
The partnerships are not always smooth sailing. There is a cultural divide between how universities and industry operate, think and behave. However, as long as there is a mutual benefit – a much-needed stream of funding for universities, and for industry-access to expert researchers with innovative capacity, such collaborations continue. The university-industry partnership is less well established when it comes to authentic participation in curriculum design. Curriculum design here refers to a planned sequence of learning for an entire degree program. It includes consideration of program aims, student-learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment tasks mapped across a whole program.
There is no doubt that employers rely on higher education providers to deliver qualified and skilled employees and universities rely on industry to provide work placements for their students and to employ their graduates. For the best fit to occur between input and output (graduates), the two parties should be clearly and regularly communicating their expectations with each other. Notwithstanding professional learning (skills and attributes), usually outlined by a professional body as in the case of Engineering, Accounting, Architecture etc; and expected to be addressed in the curriculum, participation of industry in the design of the curriculum is less prevalent.
No Overarching Framework or Support
Collaboration between industry and higher education in the design process is still rather a contentious issue for some in the higher education sector. Whilst relationships with industry groups are actively fostered, as mentioned before they have generally been about industry providing valuable work experience for learners to augment job preparation and enhance graduate employment prospects. Other instances of association are the inclusion of industry site visits for students, guest presentations/lectures by industry personnel, and the inclusion of students in industry-supported competitions. However, while they represent valuable types of engagement, they are not generally applied in a whole-of-program way, but rather are incorporated into a few subjects and dependent on individual academics and their industry contacts. In other words, there is no overarching framework and/or (maybe) support (or maybe even incentive) available to ensure a comprehensive approach is taken. One particular role comfortably assigned to the industry is that of membership onto a university advisory committee that meets perhaps once or twice annually.
The Economy Relies on a Skilled and Educated Workforce
A central component of a productivity growth strategy for any society is to develop the skill base of its workforce. A prosperous economy relies on a skilled and educated workforce. Today’s economies more than ever are less based on physical capital and more on ideas development. Young people need to be presented with a curriculum that strengthens their preparation for living and working and positioning the course of action in a progressively more multifaceted, fast altering and globally interdependent world. Employers want job-ready employees with the requisite relevant knowledge as well as skill sets to ‘hit the ground running’.
Education is preparation for many jobs
But we know that education is about much more than preparation for a single job. It has to be about producing individuals with analytical and creative minds capable of applying and creating new knowledge. It has to be about engaging young people in learning, which is durable, transferable and broad-ranging, but also appropriate for the real world. It has to be about equipping them with broadly based graduate skills that sit comfortably alongside professional-discipline specific knowledge, values and understandings.
Partnerships Built on Trust
The most successful partnerships are built on trust, having a common vision and seeing mutual benefits. It takes time to establish such partnerships. It does not mean industry becoming the dominant decider of what learning outcomes, content, learning activities and assessment tasks should make up an academic program, which is what some academic staff are concerned about. What a sincere partnership with industry will provide for is the inclusion of a real-world, contemporary perspective about workforce skills that compliment a theoretical knowledge base. Each party brings important complementary knowledge, expertise and perspectives.