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Why Business Must Learn to Engage With Universities

By Michael Andrew
The Age -
Published: August 31, 2007

WHEN KPMG recruited more than 500 graduates from Australian universities last year it reflected that KPMG was one of the universities' most important customers.

KPMG also started to think about how it interacts with its supplier, the tertiary sector. This example spawned several ideas picked up by the Committee for Melbourne's higher-education taskforce, which on Monday released its recommendations about improving the relationship between universities, business and government.

As the war for talent intensifies and the old model of attending annual career days and requesting interviews for 10,000 potential graduates is outmoded and inefficient, there is a great appetite for different sets of skills.

For example, employers have found that there is greater emphasis on soft skills: lateral thinking, personal impact, presentation skills, integrity, adaptability and the ability to work in a team.

Generation Y wants to be exposed to choice earlier than previous generations. By properly harnessing private sector experience, course content and design there will be greater career focus on preparation and skills.

The taskforce also noted the breakdown in the market cycle: Australia is not producing the right number of engineering, science, and metallurgy students to meet the demands of the commodities and construction cycle.

The taskforce's review notes a major dislocation between the universities' and employers' provision of financial incentives; the problem of investing in the right career developments at secondary schools and universities. Better mechanisms need to be put in place to enable the private sector to foreshadow to universities these emerging trends and equally have the universities stimulate their thinking about industries of the future.

The Committee for Melbourne has taken on the role of arranging an annual forum of vice-chancellors and key private sector employers to ensure there is dialogue about the structure of industry in Victoria.

With a decline in government funding, universities rely on philanthropic contributions, private sector funding and income from foreign students. The committee supports the deregulation of universities and fee structures to allow rational economic decisions.

It also recognises that there is a role for government and the private sector to provide scholarships and funding to ensure that talented students continue to have access to Victoria's tertiary institutions.

At the moment, it is clear that the private sector does not invest enough in universities. The appropriate employer model will involve much stronger links with key faculties to support course design and ensure excellence in teaching.

In exchange, universities need to be more open to engaging with the private sector and seek input into course design and structure, lecture content, and faculties.

Some professions — for example, medicine and law — have often used leading practitioners as part of the course instruction and tutorial, while other faculties — accounting, commerce, engineering and science — do not properly harness private employer interaction.

The engagement model of universities is difficult for large employers that have to cross several faculties. There is no central point of contact or relationship management with the private sector and the interface with universities can be challenging.

There is a trend for universities to appoint commercial managers who develop private relationship contacts. The taskforce has seen major changes in the way universities are seeking to found these relationships.

There are effective research capabilities at universities that can be utilised by many private sector employers to outsource their thought leadership, ideas development, market surveys, and so on, as well as providing valuable work experience, links and funding into universities, if properly applied.

For example, KPMG has produced major studies in consumer behaviour, fraud detection, accounting standards reviews and corporate governance utilising the resources present in Victoria's major tertiary sectors.

The taskforce noted that the universities' governance structures were outmoded and had not kept pace with corporate practices. Few business leaders have sat on a university council and made a strong contribution.

There are several reasons for this. Private sector employers delegate these tasks to lower executive levels, and university councils are cumbersome, too l

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