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

University managers’ role in industry collaboration should be that of cheerleader and facilitator – not auditor, says Chani Imbulgoda

July 17, 2022
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The economic problems that have led to the downfall of Sri Lanka’s government amid mass public protests will not be solved 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.

True, 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 R&D collaboration in 2020 to 44th. Such collaboration is now deemed a “strength” of the nation. But the World Intellectual Property Organization, the UN agency which produces the index, offered no explanation for this great leap, and it isn’t obvious on the ground that things have greatly changed.  

Some in Sri Lankan state universities argue that the purpose of universities is to build human capital but not to earn income. Others do not even accept the case for building human capital for the workforce. Hence, government and industry continue to rely on foreign consultancy, while graduate unemployment and underemployment is on the rise, and universities continue to be very short of cash.

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

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

University managers’ role in industry collaboration should be that of cheerleader and facilitator – not auditor. If academics are told, explicitly or implicitly, to focus only on teaching and research then that is what they will do. They need to pushed and helped to involve themselves in the third higher education mission of outreach.

University managers have to foresee industry requirements and ensure that appropriate mechanisms and facilities are in place. Openness and flexibility is key. Rules should be interpreted to the spirit rather than the letter – but this does not mean tolerating ad hoc decision-making. A transparent and evidence-based approach is crucial to maintaining trust and resolving conflicts.

Sri Lanka’s University Grants Committee has made attempts to improve university-industry collaboration through new regulatory frameworks, paid leave for senior academics who want to work in industry, and tax concessions for firms that collaborate with universities. A few years ago the 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, consulting and research collaboration and infrastructure. But while this has been successful in some universities, others have little idea of what to do and how to do it. Academics are experts in their fields, but asking them to take up responsibility for running business links is misguided in the absence of proper managerial support.

For some universities, industry collaboration simply means undergraduate internships. Universities have been slow and reluctant to involve industry representatives in the development of curricula and career guidance services. As for appointing industry figures to faculty boards or employing them as visiting lecturers, this 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, standardised, results-oriented operating procedures applicable to different types of industry collaboration.

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

Chani Imbulgoda holds a senior position in a state university in Sir Lanka. She has an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management, Sri Lanka, where she is currently reading for her PhD in quality assurance in higher education.

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