Poor knowledge transfer ‘a barrier’ to emerging economies’ growth

Ability to commercialise research is key to rebuilding war-torn countries such as Sri Lanka, but businesses must pledge support, say sector leaders

February 7, 2018
Phnom Penh
Source: iStock
Phnom Penh

Universities in emerging economies still face huge hurdles when it comes to forging much-needed links with industry, leading educators from south and south-east Asia have warned. 

Transferring quality research into viable commercial products is key to helping less economically developed countries such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Cambodia rebuild after the setbacks of war and political instability, a group of vice-chancellors agreed during a panel debate at the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit.

But lack of interest from local businesses alongside chronic underfunding and a brain drain of top graduates are issues to be addressed for many universities in the region.

Noorsaadah Abdul Rahman, deputy vice-chancellor of research and innovation at the University of Malaya, said that limited connections to industry were “the biggest challenge” facing universities in her country. Although the Malaysian government has pledged its support by setting up a knowledge exchange initiative, Professor Rahman said that even in cases where private companies showed an interest, they were “too small to push the technology the university has created” into the wider industry.

“I think if we had more of what the US or China has in terms of industry driving research, perhaps we would be able to push our technology forward into the wider world,” she said.

In Cambodia, many higher education institutions are not yet at the point where they can consider regional or international knowledge transfer, said Chet Chealy, rector of the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

The graduate brain drain is said to be almost over in China, with six in seven students returning to the country after a spell abroad. But Cambodia has a long way to go, he said. “Our best graduates don’t want to come back because they get better pay elsewhere; it is a challenge,” he added.

Chronic underfunding also hindered efforts to build Cambodia’s research profile, Dr Chealy said. “First and foremost, we must provide a good-quality education. If you rely on only one source of money from the government, you can’t do anything. In the case of my university, government funding makes up only 30 to 40 per cent of that needed. The rest must come from the university itself or other development agencies.”

Asked whether it was the responsibility of higher education institutions or governments to help forge relations between industry and academia, Professor Rahman said that universities must “take charge” of their own progress.

“Government can support these exchanges; but if a university is not ready to move, nothing happens,” she said. “We want to invest in student start-ups in the hope that the money will get returned to us one day.”

Speaking to THE, Lakshman Dissanayake, vice-chancellor of the University of Colombo, said that an initiative established recently by the university with fellow institutions to focus on the potential for commercialising intellectual property was a “very, very important” aspect of the rebuilding of Sri Lanka after years of civil war.

“Now that we have started the reconciliation process, there is a lot of university-based activity,” he said. “[This means] not just focusing on sciences but social sciences, too. Emerging economies like us are trying to relate the education system to a knowledge-based economy.”

Inflexible attitudes at home remain a challenge even for the leading Sri Lankan institution, however. “At such an old and traditional university like ours, there are still academics who are not engaged with the idea of knowledge exchange,” Professor Dissanayake said. “Some are very inwardly facing.”

To effect change, he continued, “First, we need to improve our research profile. We have been doing a lot of innovative research, but there is still room for improvement.”

A task force has been set up with vice-chancellors and rectors across Sri Lanka – including leaders from the heavily afflicted northern and eastern areas – designed explicitly to develop regional collaborations as well as boost the region’s international profile. The move has already helped Colombo to forge links abroad, including a partnership with the Southern University of Science and Technology in China.

“Everyone is involved,” he said. “We talk about how to collaborate and take the universities forward and also bring the communities together, because without peace and harmony you can’t do anything. It’s a new era for Sri Lanka. We hope one day to compete with the likes of the rest of Asia.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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