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For a better economy, Sri Lanka needs more university-industry links

The economic problems that led to the fall of the Sri Lankan government amid massive public protests will not be resolved overnight. But it is clear that harnessing the combined strength of Sri Lanka’s universities and industries could be an important step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the current situation is not very encouraging.

Certainly, in the 2021 edition of the Global Innovation Index, Sri Lanka recorded something of a breakthrough, rising from 73rd in the world for university-industry collaboration in R&D in 2020 to 44th. Such collaboration is now considered a “strength” of the nation. But the World Intellectual Property Organization, the UN agency that produces the index, has given no explanation for the big jump, and it’s not clear on the ground that much has changed.

Some in Sri Lankan state universities argue that the purpose of universities is to build human capital but not to earn income. Others don’t even buy the arguments for building human capital for the workforce. As a result, government and industry continue to rely on foreign consultants, while graduate unemployment and underemployment increase and universities continue to run out of cash.

Even when industry links are established by academics, backward attitudes and approaches by managers lead to administrative bottlenecks, corruption and the fulfillment of personal agendas, all of which limit the success of partnerships.

A 2016 World Bank study, “Promoting University-Industry Collaboration in Sri Lanka: Status, Case Studies, and Policy Options,” found that rigid procedures demoralized those trying to induce university-industry collaborations. The steep hierarchy of public universities is in tension with flatter corporate hierarchies and, like their public sector counterparts, university managers are too fond of shifting decision-making responsibility from one committee to another and are too bound by arcane procedures, with accompanying mountains of paperwork, to make decisions in a reasonable time.

The role of university managers in working with industry should be that of a leader and facilitator, not a checker. If academics are told, explicitly or implicitly, to focus only on teaching and research, that is what they will do. They need to be pushed and helped to get involved in the third mission of raising awareness in higher education.

University directors must anticipate the needs of industry and ensure that the appropriate mechanisms and facilities are in place. Openness and flexibility are essential. Rules should be interpreted in spirit rather than in letter – but that doesn’t mean condoning ad hoc decision-making. A transparent and evidence-based approach is crucial to maintaining trust and resolving conflict.

Sri Lanka’s University Grants Committee has attempted to improve university-industry collaboration through new regulatory frameworks, paid leave for top academics who want to work in industry, and tax breaks for companies that collaborate with universities. A few years ago, UCG also introduced the University Business Linkage (UBL) concept. Each university is required to have a UBL “cell” to promote and facilitate cooperation with industry, in areas such as student projects, training, consultancy and collaboration, and research infrastructure. But while it has been successful in some universities, others have no idea what to do and how to do it. Academics are experts in their fields, but asking them to take responsibility for business relationship management is a mistake in the absence of proper managerial support.

For some universities, collaboration with industry simply means undergraduate internships. Universities have been slow and reluctant to involve industry representatives in curriculum development and career guidance services. As for appointing industry figures to faculty councils or employing them as guest lecturers, that remains almost unheard of.

An overhaul of existing management structures – and those who populate them – is long overdue. Critical improvements include a flatter hierarchy, effective communication processes, and clear, standardized, results-oriented operating procedures applicable to different types of industrial collaboration.

Ultimately, university managers must ensure that institutions and industries speak in a language that both can understand.

Chani Imbulgoda is in a senior position at a state university in Sir Lanka. She holds an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management in Sri Lanka, where she is currently working on her PhD in Quality Assurance in Higher Education.

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