Aacademia-industry gap: Surfing uneven turf

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: November 14, 2019 20:31:04

Dr. M. Rokunzzaman's timely attention to any nuptial between a civilised society's two key pillars, the intellect and industry, drives the next question: can the generic outcomes he identifies apply to countries new in both those fields? [Reducing academia-industry gap:  Three approaches, M. Rokunuzzaman, The Financial Express, November 06, 2019] Clearly an academia-industry marriage cannot come out of romance, given how independently robust each can stand in the 21st century, but arranged marriages can be made warm enough to survive 21st century peculiarities.

Of his three possibilities, the first, which converts academia into an industrial annex, presumes a singular industrial format at odds with today's global ground realities, that is, what industrial kind or stage is not specified when it might matter the most. The second combines both sectors into joint research and development (R&D) for mutual and fairly symmetrical benefit, but again taking the R&D framework as a constant across national boundaries when it varies so starkly. His third also belongs to the same R&D trajectory, but this time with the playground titled to favour industry, where the key word, 'tilt', between different countries may speak far louder than that between the academic and industrial sectors.

For educators, such as Rokunuzzaman and myself, academia-industry mix is imperative to a country in the 'take-off' stage in both intellectual pursuits and industrialisation: we need to both enhance knowledge frontiers and get our students employed. His enormously important summons through his initial probe into the subject, particularly the tripartite classification, invites appraisals from other dimensions for us all, that is, society, to fully profit. Here the specific country matters, in particular its stage of economic development (since that is where industry is lodged). If we take the industrial type to serve as the variable, would, for instance, a low-wage industrial base demand any kind of academic input, since the essence of the deployed labour and capital do not need any such intervention. Shifting to a high-wage industry, the scope to reduce wages demands mechanisation, something academic inputs supply through the R&D instrument. This leaves the initiative to the evolving modus operandi between academics and businessmen, another virgin area worth intellectual inquiry. Business trust, for instance, depends upon some degree of social trust, which begins complicating even the most cozy academic-industry intertwining exercise, For example, if both belong to the same/similar upper social echelon, would this ultimately burden lower/middle-class engagement, or if they represent two different classes (the business, by definition, upper, academia, by tradition, middle-class), what would be the social configuration, inclinations, and consequences?

Before even turning to the Rokunuzzaman's typological triplet, let us summarily and illustratively consider Bangladesh, particularly now: its more nascent industrial take-off more or less coincides with the tertiary education itself burgeoning. Private industry was not new when the first private universities began from 1993: the ready-made-garment (RMG) sector was already in the ballpark. Yet, any retrospective 21st century appraisal of this and other industrial sectors cannot help but distinguish between new and old wealth, the bourgeoisie from the aristocrat. One cannot be struck with the parallels between Bangladesh's RMG growth and the mid-19th century US gold rush: more new capitalists broke ground than the old, and just like many in Bangladesh also converted newly-found cash from the turn-of-the-century apartment-construction boom to feed an infinite 1990s global RMG demand, so too did the US gold rush spawn railroad infrastructure and industrial building. Old Bangladesh wealth, for instance, in the tea industry, took an earlier lead in initiating the industry-academia embrace, though mostly through philanthropy, that is, helping the industry-academic educational institutions pay off routine costs rather than embark upon R&D pursuits. Not acknowledging the philanthropic platform could easily obscure the academia-industry subject-matter in countries like Bangladesh.

New wealth arguably converted philanthropy into a working, R&D type relationship. We see this less with the country's first industry, the textiles (RMG sector), than in the recent software surge: so many more universities have sprung to supply this software sector with a trained worker-pool than the RMG sector can boast of, although universities fully devoted to either one of them litter Dhaka's many neighbourhoods. No study has been done, at least to the best of my knowledge, if university trustee boards angle each institution in a particular direction, and if so, what the preliminary outcomes might be: has industry pushed academia into new technological thresholds, new, that is, by Bangladesh's standards, or new manufacturing domains? How have they resolved the country's surplus low-wage availabilities with the imperative for escalating the technological ladder? Though Bangladesh has begun the shift from low-wage employment (for example, in RMG factories), to slightly higher-wage employment (as in the software industry), how far will this process go from the academia-industry matrimonial perspective: will we push to produce RMG robots to alleviate RMG entrepreneurial concerns over repeated labour strikes; or will the software industry accidentally produce a very competitive global high-end product requiring greater R&D input for implementation, consolidation, and marketing purposes, thus pushing the knowledge frontiers further?

What emerges from those theoretical questions and considerations is the very different terrain right across the world. Bangladesh may be racing up some industrial ladder, thus turning to technologies new to its clients (both entrepreneurs and workers), but which are not at all new to other countries. One option would be to import them to remain true to the neo-liberal global economic orientation; but another would be to produce them locally, thus ramping up protective walls to shelter infant industries, a policy-approach very costly for less developed countries on the global front, but unusually popular on the domestic social front.

Ultimately three voices must speak to shape that academia-industry relationship, since it possesses the key future wealth of the country, cash and knowledge, against the consideration of deploying the former efficiently and maximising the latter limitlessly. The first voice, business, may already be speaking: we are beginning to move beyond philanthropy, although how philanthropic money has built vast endowments in several universities abroad is something we lack: R&D funding from university endowments carry less the industry fingerprints, thus becoming socially more palatable, while still delivering industrial needs. Bangladesh will need both types. The United States exemplifies them clearly: the Carnegie/Ford/Rockefeller type against the Bill Gates version, the former shifting from building and funding industry-specific types of universities to universities in general, the latter disseminating education to the masses, rather than channelling it into sector-specific or industry-specific arenas.

Already the second voice can be heard: academia. As alluded to, some of our universities have devoted themselves fully in a specific industrial direction, whether the trustee board is owned by that industry or not. Others remain committed to education at large, even if trustee boards may have industry-specific identities. Many universities, especially the public, remain stalwarts of general education, even though private enterprises may court them for either education-promotion or product-enhancement. Most challenging for this second voice stakeholders is not the type of industry-related affiliation it must have, but the future of education across the country: has the Internet advent, and with it all its capabilities and implications, doomed traditional education as to attract industry interest, or are the seeds of innovation visible enough to summon industry?

Clearly both above voices have a long future to work out the type of relationship they would like to have. A third voice, of society, may impinge which way they go: if it is too vested (favouring specific social segments), before a majority of the population reaches middle-income ranks, would it be sustainable; but if it must be inclusive, would the first voice be interested enough, particularly if this approach results in zero-sum student politics, leaked examinations, and anarchic campuses?

These are not concerns of developed countries, again suggesting how their academia-industry relationship might siphon off our students and thwart any academy-industry relationship here.

Questions such as these grow in importance at every transition (within academia or industry, or both). Bangladesh's multiple present transitions demand some clear-cut answers, if only for better long-term outcomes.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.



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