FOR over five years, I served as director of the Industry Relations Division in the Department of Higher Education.
Most members of the public probably have not heard of this division — its mandate is to engage with industry and to promote collaboration with universities and the Education Ministry.
Put another way, the role of the division is to address complaints by industry, namely that “universities do not offer relevant programmes” or “graduates are not properly equipped for the workforce”.
Looking back on the experiences, there were four lessons that I picked up and would like to share.
LESSON 1: CREATE PLATFORMS FOR ENGAGEMENT
One of the biggest obstacles preventing industry from getting involved with universities is the lack of a platform.
Industries are often keen to contribute and share ideas, but they do not know where to start or who to go to.
As such, it is important for universities to create engagement platforms where industry can come and contribute.
For example, back in 2015, the Education Ministry introduced the [email protected] Programme. Simple in its conception, the programme invited CEOs and top industry personnel to become adjunct professors within public universities.
Encouragingly, 24 CEOs joined the inaugural group, including Tan Sri Tony Fernandes of AirAsia, Datuk Seri Azahari Kamil of QSR group, Datuk Seri Syed Zainal Abidin (Petronas), Datuk Michael Tio of PKT Logistics, and Hari Narayanan (then with Motorola).
They contributed their time — for free — by giving lectures to students and having capacity development sessions with faculties.
They even spent time reviewing curriculum and advising on enhancements. In total, more than 1,000 hours was contributed benefiting over 70,000 students.
LESSON 2 : NURTURE THE NETWORKS
Establishing connections and creating platforms will only go so far — conscious effort must be made to continue to grow the networks between industry and academia.
From the vice-chancellor to the deputy V-C in charge of industry, everyone plays a role in nurturing the relationships with industry.
This could be done via a simple yet always up-to-date email database. After all, personnel change, some leave the company, some are promoted. I’m often surprised how this is often overlooked.
There have been situations where an email was sent with the wrong title and designation, causing embarrassment.
Soft engagement, such as sending seasonal greetings, to more formal engagements, such as dinners and dialogues, are all opportunities to re-engage.
LESSON 3: CREATE WIN-WIN RELATIONSHIPS
It’s easy to take relationships with industry for granted. Universities tend to think they have the ‘upper hand’ — after all, they have the financial backing of the government, the research grants, the physical campus, and access to students.
But this sort of thinking is dangerous.
Fundamentally, industry is looking for a win-win relationship.
Usually, industries are glad to contribute cash, in kind and expertise to assist a university.
But in the long run, the university, too, needs to manage its budget and investment into the relationship so that it’s not just the industry which is giving.
The value does not have to be monetary, but it could be in the form of effort, space, or even time that the industry seeks so that they, too, can benefit from the relationship.
Having clear goals and outcomes which are tracked within a fixed timeline is also key — this is to ensure none of the parties waste time and are able to assess whether a particular initiative is beneficial.
I have seen situations where universities often ask for funds or contributions in kind from industry without a clear reciprocity plan in place.
This causes industry to back away and also question the sincerity of the relationship.
LESSON 4: PLAN FOR THE FUTURE, EMPOWER TALENT
The last lesson to share relates to succession planning. The continued success and longevity of the various platforms and initiatives highlighted above hinges on the passion of young lecturers. They play the role as university ambassadors to industry.
For example, the second batch of the [email protected] Programme consisted of over 40 young academics. The selection process was led by those from the first batch.
Many of the young academics have gone on to take up important positions within their universities and the Education Ministry.
Essentially, preparing a next generation of leaders must be done by design.
Done right, our universities can thrive with support from the industry. I firmly believe strong synergies between universities and industry will ensure our students are able to thrive in the future.
The writer is deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) of Universiti Malaysia Kelantan