An alliance between industry and universities brings with it tremendous benefits for all parties but since taking over the UKI program five years ago I have noted there is one particular benefit which is perhaps sometimes overlooked.
For the university working with industry offers several key benefits. The first is that it informs research – it is so much easier to gather research subjects for longer or more in depth studies and thereby improve the overall quality and validity of reearch. This doesn’t mean that all industrial research must be primary and necessitate close engagement with industry – but there are plenty of research topics that require direct access to employees, direct knowledge of processes, procedures and people that can only be achieved if there is a pre-existing bond of trust between the two (or more) organisations. Second – it raises the (potential) validity of the university experience for students to see that what they are learning has direct applicabilty in the world after their studies are completed. In fact the best courses I have noted are those that seem to seemlesly incorporate the two into one teaching philosophy – with students gaining knowledge from faculty, studying themselves, and then gaining additional insights from industry as to how that element they are studying applies or is adapted in their company or industry. For me this rather like adding an additional dimension to class learning – like turning a 2-D blueprint into a 3-D model.
There are advantages to industry too. Universities may bring together whole groups of specialists on topics which a company would be unable, whether for financial or political reasons, to field itself perhaps in a product area that it has only partial interest in yet is interested in evaluating the potential in. By directly involving itself with universities the company can also provide resources that enable it to have an influence over the form and typs of teaching and research so that students arrive in industry with immediately valuable skills, and these in turn can be deployed by the university in such a way that its’ integrity is protected but that in turn it is able to form that close relationship that informs research, teaching and student development.
But perhaps the greatest outcome of university / industrial alliances is this: that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I have noticed that there is a feedback loop that operates in the members within the SAP UA Program which begins as moderate amendments to the effectivenesss of one degree or course but which is then built on not just to expand SAP usage but to inform the whole development of research and teaching strategy. In the case of teaching for example faculty initially are able to gain new SAP skills. These in turn feed a greater ‘real-world’ knowledge of SAP and Enterprise Systems which in turn informs the research and curricula development process, leading to a greater understanding of what is important not only in industry but technologically and pedagogically. Thus faculty are brought ‘inside’ and as members they are able to make judgements about where whole industries, applications and even business processes and strategies are heading. As a result faculty know where there will be interesting developments, potential research subjects and of course potentially research funding, and can, if they wish, direct their research efforts there. The feedback loop also of course feeds into teaching, with faculty able to use multiple new means of raising enthusiasm in students, underline their teaching with new teaching methods, case studies and technologies and enhance student applications and retention.
These in turn feed back to students who are more engaged and have a deeper insight into not only industry but their own studies – recognising the value of what they have learnt with a new appreciation; and to faculty that are able to ‘see the future’ more clearly and develop their research and teaching strategies accordingly.
However the best news is that this UA feedback loop doesn’t stop – it continues to evolve year in year out as faculty develop ever greater skills and knowledge, build ever deeper relationships and make ever more sophisticated and informed adaptations to curricula and research. In this case the UA must be one of the deepst and richest academic / industrial collaborations ever pursued.