Australia has an odd relationship with its universities. On one hand we are justifiably proud of their world rankings, their extraordinary achievements in diverse fields from medical research to space science to the arts and humanities.
On the other hand we quickly move to condemn them for being out of touch, and we challenge their relevance, and their contribution to our economy and our society.
There is plenty of evidence that our universities are doing their job of producing great graduates and excellent research. There are a plethora of university ranking systems, all of which show Australia’s universities compete well with the world’s best. We win our share of Nobel prizes, and (more recently) Fields Medals.
How well Australian universities link with the other sectors of our economy and our community, and what contributions they provide to these, is poorly served for data. There are no good measures – no rating or ranking systems to compare with overseas institutions – that give an objective view.
We draw our cynicism about Australian universities’ contributions from very few data points – including frequently cited yet flawed data from the OECD – supported by hearsay and limited experience. That’s why data from the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2019 is important.
World Competitiveness Yearbook 2019: better measures
The World Competitiveness Centre analysis provides the only comprehensive and credible view on national performance. The Executive Opinion Survey (a minimum of 100 responses for each of 63 countries) underpins about one-third of a country’s overall competitiveness ranking.
In Australia, CEDA draws upon its membership. It receives a mix of responses from large corporates, universities and SMEs.
The WCC analysis also benefits from a better understanding of the interaction between universities and companies. The term collaboration is now recognised to be a poor label for the variety of interactions between the sectors. Increasingly, Australia and other nations are following the UK model, where ‘knowledge transfer’ is treated as the important performance metric.
Knowledge transfer encompasses the gamut of interactions from deep technology development through technology commercialisation and problem-solving; it also covers the training of human talent, and the knowledge and skills they take into industry through placements, internships, graduation and employment. Knowledge transfer also recognises that the interaction is two-way – that university students, teachers, and researchers learn from companies and the community.
WCY Australian analysis: above the middle of the curve
BHERT has used the WCY analysis to provide a much more authoritative view on the status of interactions between Australian universities and companies. The knowledge exchange measure in the WCY is a direct measure of performance, from the perspective of Australian executives.
On this metric (WCY 4.3.22), Australia scores 5.45 on a scale of one (knowledge transfer is lacking) to six (knowledge transfer is highly developed).
This is above the average for the 63 nations assessed in 2019. Australia ranks around 30th. Over the last five years, Australia has ranked between 20th and 30th on this measure. Fluctuations of this order are to be expected with these sample sizes.
This reflects strong performance by Australia’s universities and companies, and is consistent with our overall World Competitiveness Yearbook 2019 ranking of 18th across all indicators.
The difference between overall ranking and the knowledge exchange metric derives from a number of factors, including the nature of our economy, namely the shift from resource extraction and manufacturing to services.
It indicates that there is still some distance to go before Australia achieves excellence in this sphere. However, most importantly it dispels the notion that Australia is a complete laggard in industry-university partnerships; that there is a fundamental structural or cultural divide between the sectors, which is not apparent in nations such as the USA, Canada, or the UK.
Further evidence: spectacular growth in BHERT Awards
High level measures and analysis needs to be corroborated by the lived experience, and this assessment of Australia as a strong performer is now borne out by evidence of real partnerships between universities and companies.
BHERT has conducted its Australian Collaboration Awards since 1998; these are acknowledged as the most prestigious national recognition of outstanding partnerships between universities and companies, or universities and community organisations. The Awards have fluctuated in prominence and importance over the last two decades, but recent years have shown a tremendous flourishing of this aspect of university activity.
For the last 22 years, BHERT has received between 50 and 70 submissions for its awards each year. This year, for the 2019 awards, BHERT received 156 applications – a near doubling from last year (79 applications), and three-times the long-run annual average. This is an extraordinary outcome, and demonstrates that university partnerships are alive and well in Australia.
BHERT’s awards assessors commented on the very high calibre of the entries this year, in fields from medical diagnostics and therapeutics to energy and environmental applications, through social sciences and Indigenous engagement.
It also features a rapid growth in education interactions related to digital learning and skills development in sectors from psychology to engineering, and community interactions such as emergency response, health and safety, and disadvantage.
Next steps: Understand the drivers and support partnerships
This is not a call for complacency and self-satisfaction. While there is a good base of industry-university and university-community partnerships from which to build, there is much work to be done.
The WCY analysis is rich, and highlights many other critical areas of interaction, including business expenditure on R&D, innovative capacity of firms, STEM skills (ranked 52), management and language education.
The most important implication is the input it provides for policy measures and the leadership behaviours of universities, companies and associations, and governments. It confirms that the current system is not broken; productive partnerships are well established, and are proliferating.