Naked Gun 33 1/3 – The Final Insult

Naked Gun 33 1/3 – The Final Insult

Naked Gun 33 1/3 – The Final Insult

Australia’s bumbling approach to engagement and collaboration conjures up the inept Frank Drebin, only this isn’t a comedy.

EA Chair Pierre Viljoen comments on the state of Engagement in the HE sector.

Taken together, poor policy and inadequate practice constrain the effective use of knowledge in socio-economic development and national innovation. With this in mind, I have to wonder if the ‘case’ for engagement and collaboration between higher education and society in Australia has gone somewhat cold? All too often it seems to me as if we are bumbling around this ‘case’ like Leslie Nielsen’s crime-solving maladroit character Lt Frank Drebin, happening upon our few successes more by chance than design.

The notion that higher education institutions and practitioners can and should, through engagement with the broader society, create relationships and partnerships through knowledge exchange initiatives that benefit society has been well stated by a range of reports, authors and institutions since the late ’50s.

However, listening to Chief Scientist of Australia Ian Chubb at the 2014 Universities Australia Conference emphatically making the case for change in our approach towards collaboration still leaves me feeling like a scene from The Naked Gun 33 1/3, not knowing whether I should laugh or cry!

Initial reaction aside, I am encouraged by Chubb’s assessment and the opportunity presented by this radical need to change our collaborative practices. At the same time, however, I am also somewhat cautious and pessimistic because in my own experience, I have seen little support for a collective, sector-wide approach that promotes the holistic thinking and collective action required to address the issue at hand. Though slightly improved over recent years, this is still further evidenced by a general lack of senior leadership roles and consistency in application of these around the engagement and collaboration agendas of Australian universities.

Chubb’s scalpel cut deep when it revealed Australia now finds itself ranked 33rd out of 33 OECD countries in “business collaboration with higher education and public research agencies”. It cut even deeper when he warned “Australia lacks the national urgency found in the United States, East Asia and much of Western Europe, and runs the risk of being left behind”.As a proud Australian, this statement makes me cringe even more than Drebin’s propensity for stupidity!

However, this should not be news to us. As late as September 2012, the Advisory Council on Intellectual Property reported that the current performance metrics f or research do not sufficiently encourage the formation of collaborations with industry and recommended that attention be given to improving the motivation and ability of researchers to engage in collaboration with industry.

My mind goes back to our OECD position (33/33) and I have to wonder if , like Drebin, we have missed some crucial clues in the case to date? Have we had the public debate on this matter? And if we have, on what have we agreed? Do we have a collective understanding of what will be required to move us forward? Do we perhaps need to revisit our assumptions about this critically important aspect of higher education, and if so how can we best achieve this … holistically?

I am comforted in my own shortcomings by the chief scientist’s honesty that even he does not know or have all the answers.I have personally spent considerable time and effort over the past couple of years in understanding and driving engagement and collaboration better from an institutional as well as sector-wide perspective with, may I say, mixed results at best.

However, I believe it is important to soldier on, and as such, am putting the following thoughts forward for debate.

Engagement, collaboration and the resultant partnerships critical to enabling knowledge exchange more broadly should form the centre of our collective attention in the sector. This should not be seen as an ‘add-on’, ‘nice-to-have’ or ‘focus-for-now’ but rather a strategic national framework universities develop collectively and in partnership with government, business and society. Focusing in this way will move us away from a piecemeal approach towards a place where we can collectively better start to understand:

– diversity and individuality of our partners as well as their specific requirements
– skills staff across the sector require to be successful at engagement and collaboration
– incentive and reward systems required to motivate staff
– diversity of activities undertaken across the research, education and service components of universities that benefit or could benefit f rom a strategic national approach.

In conclusion, there are several universities, agencies and individuals doing extraordinary work in this space. However, as we have now seen, these efforts are not taking us forward at the pace required to remain globally competitive. I echo Chubb’s plea – “the time for change is now”!

Professor JP Viljoen is Deputy Vice Chancellor, Engagement and Campuses, Central Queensland University.

This article was published in Campus Review on April 7, 2014: