In Australia, universities keeping doors wide open to business

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Academia-industry engagements generate AU$19.4 billion per year in economic activity for Australia.

By U2B Staff 

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Australian higher education providers are accelerating efforts to lift industry-academia collaborations, as recent findings continue to tout the multiplier effect they have on business bottom lines, the national economy and wider society.

“We’re open for business,” is the message universities Down Under have been driving home to corporations this past year, whilst “we have the expertise you need” best describes their elevator pitch.

For universities, this renewed focus on industry engagement is as much a eureka moment as it is a clarion call for help. Heightened demand for digital and soft skills to fill industry gaps has been wearing on universities, especially as they struggle under the weight of recent funding cuts.

In its mid-year Budget update last December, the Morrison government slashed AU$328 million from university research funding, sparking protests from academia. The cuts were the second wave of belt-tightening on the education sector in two years; the government had a year prior pulled the handbrake on AU$2.2 billion worth of commonwealth grants funding for teaching and learning.

Yet, expectations for better, more technologically-enhanced and outcomes-focused education remain high. A recent study by consulting firm Korn Ferry revealed that by 2020, Australia would have a shortage of 739,000 highly skilled workers. A decade later, this shortfall is projected to increase to 2.2 million.

Collaborations to the rescue

Forced to wake up and smell the coffee, universities now see industry partnerships as one way forward, an area in which Australia, by international measures, sorely lacks.

As such, where once the “publish or perish” maxim dominated academia, in a similar vein, the mantra “collaborate or die” now seems to have taken over. From innovation precincts to tech research hubs filled with collaborative workspaces and special teams dedicated to fostering new relationships with industry, there appears to be an uptick in activity.

Universities Australia, the peak body representing the country’s university sector, has been campaigning hard in this space.

In its Clever Collaborations report released last year, the umbrella body revealed that some 16,000 businesses already work with universities in some capacity, yielding the firms over AU$16 billion annually and generating AU$19.4 billion in economic activity. It said that boosting the engagement to include a further 8,000 businesses could raise the latter figure to over AU$30 billion, a figure it hopes to achieve with increased efforts.

The body also made an ambitious pitch to business leaders, saying Australia’s universities were well-equipped to help them solve their most complex business challenges.

“Australia’s universities are open for business and we’re here to help,” Universities Australia Chair Professor Margaret Gardner said then.

“If you have a complex business challenge you haven’t been able to crack, come talk to an Australian university about how we can work together to solve it. By tapping into university talent, business can source new ideas, get the jump on early-stage research and cut the time it takes to bring new products to market.”

Renewed vigour

Asked to comment on progress today, a year after the report was launched, the body tells U2B that work in this space has been encouraging and the dialogue with business bodies ongoing.

A business looking for opportunities to collaborate need only to identify exactly what gaps in operations they need filled or problems solved. The rest, such as the nature and dynamics of the partnership, they could leave to their selected university’s corporate engagement, strategic partnerships or technology transfer office to put together.

“Many Australian universities now have specific senior staff or units whose job it is to liaise with business or community groups and help people find the right connections to collaborate across a university,” Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Catriona Jackson says in an email to U2B.


The options for collaborations or partnerships with any of Australia’s 39 universities are inexhaustible. Jackson says they could range from tapping into specialist expertise on a specific business challenge through to commercialising new products that arise out of university research. If the business is on a talent hunt, they may also be interested in recruiting junior talent through student work placements, internships or even apprenticeships to fill specific gaps.

Businesses could also look into speaking and guest lecturing engagements with the university or, depending on needs, may be tapped for their expertise to inform the design and delivery process of new courses.

Separately, businesses could co-locate operations to university campuses or within university innovation districts in arrangements that offer them ready-access to the nation’s best researchers and state-of-the-art equipment.

“These sorts of clever collaborations are a win-win for both businesses and for universities.”

catriona jackson
Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Catriona Jackson speaks to journalists during the recent Universities Australia Higher Education Conference. Source: Universities Australia

Benefits to business

New data published by Universities Australia in its Career Ready Graduates report released this year found that almost half a million students at Australian universities had done some form of Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) through placements, internships or career preparation activities as part of their degree study.

And figures from JWS Research, commissioned by the university group, show the experience is highly valued by the Australian public with 91 percent saying work placements were important in preparing graduates to land employment after graduation.

“Businesses see the value in hosting students to give them an edge in talent spotting and graduate recruitment, as well as utilising student skills on business challenges,” Jackson tells U2B.

“And the job outlook for graduates remains very strong in Australia, with nine in ten graduates in full-time work three years after graduation – and strong employer satisfaction with our graduates.”