Dr Lovemore Matipira Special Correspondent
This article seeks to locate the importance of university-industry and Government ties, commonly referred to as the Triple Helix approach. The relationship explains the complex emerging interrelationship between the state, universities and industry.
The interrelationship has become necessary due to complex challenges facing universities today not only in Zimbabwe, but worldwide, particularly in transitional economies. The changing university governance, leadership and management in Zimbabwe provokes the need for the triple helix approach as a mutual beneficially approach for sustainability.
However, the public share of tertiary education spending in Zimbabwe has fallen drastically and the call for the interrelationship serves as a mitigating factor for the sustainability of parties involved. It is also important to highlight that universities in Zimbabwe, particularly public universities, no longer enjoy the oligopoly of yesteryears of mixed funded growth, low competitive pressure and loose performance expectations.
Public universities in the country now face more competition from private, vocational, online/virtual and overseas-based providers who establish international branch campuses (IBCs) in Zimbabwe within the context of internationalization of higher tertiary education system.
In addition, the Government has restricted public funding and at the same time increased public institutions and calls for massification of higher tertiary education. Massification and knowledge growth alter the nature of university management and governance structures. This leaves the universities with no other option than reliance on private revenues to supplement meagre funding from the state.
As a result, the universities have become colonised by business ideologies in the form of commodification, corporatisation, commercialisation, marketisation and managerialism. This means that by commodification, the universities now offer a commodity, which has a price.
This increases the competition and hence a change in the mindset towards corporatisation. By corporatisation, it implies the adoption of business models and managerial styles that are foreign to university culture of management and leadership. Thus, the university product, as a commodity becomes commercialised and hence the need for marketisation. This places a huge burden on parents and guardians towards payments of fees. This complicates the sustainability of the universities in Zimbabwe.
Call for Interrelationship
In response to changing university landscape in the country, the government of the Republic of Zimbabwe has extended a noble call to all universities in Zimbabwe and industry to forge a relationship that is geared towards intensity of university-industry ties. The call enables the universities to generate an increased proportion of own income, inclusive of research income. The call comes as no surprise since higher education systems generally see industry contracts and research commercialisation as potential sources of income. Thus, the Government has called upon the universities to play a more central role in supporting economic growth in addition to already existing policy schemes that seek to promote knowledge transfer towards industry.
In this context, one would want to reasonably believe that universities will become willing actors and heed the government call to duty. The call will boost their incomes and enable them to remain competitive in the current turbulent environment.
The noble call by the Government of Zimbabwe is consistent with the emerging economies of India and China and the developed economies of Australia, Finland and Singapore inter alia. The said countries have transformed themselves into great economic giants. Chakrabarti (2002, p.1) notes that the university-industry relationship is not new: “Germany was the pioneering country where a university-industry relationship helped create the pharmaceutical industry in the early 19th century.”
The establishment of the Land Grant Universities in the US in the 19th century is another example of deliberate policy to make publicly funded research directly relevant to local industry. However “the scale and the nature of university-industry partnerships from the eighties distinguish them from earlier collaborations” (Dridi and Crespo 2005, p.2005).
It is important to note that openness and trade through commitment to innovation embraced these countries achievements. Thus, innovation remains indispensable to their self-transformation. In view of the aforesaid, the government of the Republic of Zimbabwe is not merely focussing on economic “catch-up” but pronouncing itself as an emerging leader in innovation in multiple fields.
She has to do so as a nation if she is to avoid relative prosperity decline. Zimbabwe as a country has a rare gift of the major drivers of innovation, the human capital. This places the country on a better position. However, whilst the gains derived from the triple helix approach are many, few challenges that could impede the progress persist and need little space in this discussion.
Until relatively recently, the Triple Helix approach advocated by President Mnangagwa received little attention in the previous government. It is always argued that God’s time is the best and indeed His Excellency set the ball rolling on January 9, instant.
The previous situation in the country reflects that knowledge transfer between universities and industry was one way involving the flow of graduates and publicly accessible knowledge. This was not beneficially to the universities and the Government. Strong arguments abound that include the idea that public money should not be used as subsidy for commercial activities.
The imperative thinking contend that activities and products based on public funding constitute unfair competition, distort markets, and remain detrimental to society and the economy. The other view contends that universities should charge a price for bringing their knowledge to the market.
The rationale on this view posits that society would have to pay twice, first through public funding and then again at the market place. Other schools of thought contend that universities should desist from trading as business even though they remain pressured to adopt “business-like” models. Advocates of this view believe that such practices compromise the critical role of universities in teaching and research.
However, reformed political attitudes in the country advocate for higher tertiary institutions to accelerate knowledge production and transform market prices in the commercialisation process. Marques et al (2004, p.3) concluded that the increasing importance in wealth creation increases the value of academic knowledge to industry, and the pace of technological development increases with shorter product life-cycles, which accelerates corporates substitution processes.
This sounds marvellous and spot on, but the downside of the whole argument is that the transfer of knowledge is more complex than being linear. It is argued that universities are interested in partnership with industry because of shrinking public funds. In contrast, industry seek partnerships with universities in order to mitigate the complexity of scientific knowledge. They see the engagement as a means of enhancing real competitive advantages through technological differentiation. In this way, firms access unavailable resources and competencies, share costs and risks that could otherwise be a burden of individual companies.
The Triple Helix approach, though sophisticated in its nature, fosters a company’s competitive position through adoption of advanced, innovation and value-added technologies. The advantage derived from the engagement by industry are that they can access basic and applied research results; access economically relevant scientific and technological knowledge; develop and test prototypes; get support in solving specific problems and new products specification and recruit highly qualified human resources. The aggregate output will enhance economic development in the country.
On the other hand, universities will enjoy added resources that include financial resources; access to updated technical knowledge creation and utilisation; access to industrial information; access to applied knowledge and gains in image and visibility through the transfer of useful scientific knowledge coming from academic research to industry.
The situation creates a win-win situation within parties involved in the triple helix approach. To the contrary, various obstacles hinder the interrelationship between universities and industry that include cultural and social in nature. The two entities do not share common values and hence can impede creation and transfer of knowledge. Universities use eclectic and speculative academic language while entrepreneurial view remains focused and practical.
Different periods is one other obstacle given the view of the partners. Industry focuses on short-term concrete results, whilst universities prefers long-term and loose outcomes. Industry seeks immediate solutions to existing problems whilst universities favour long-term strategic enquiries. Economic property rights may create conflicts whenever innovation gains economic value.
Entrepreneurs fail to understand academic deontological principles related to the university of knowledge that don’t coexist well with property values. These are some of the impediments that may hinder the successful development, implementation and sustainability of the triple helix approach and need a bird’s eye view as events unfolds.
Overall, they is need to appreciate government initiatives and the novelty of the initiative of bringing together relevant strategic economic entities in the country and captains of industry and higher tertiary institutions leadership and management together for the first time in the history of independent Zimbabwe. The initiative demystifies protagonists who remains critical of government initiatives and pave the way for a new Zimbabwe in the new political dispensation.
The current paper reviewed the proposed triple helix approach advocated by the government in which a call for interrelationship amongst the government, universities and industry with specific emphasis on university links with industry and commercialisation of university research will prevails.
The envisaged potential collaboration will produce substantial financial and other benefits that include funding from research contracts and consultancies to universities and partners involved. The paper noted that research commercialisation enhances the sharing of the economic and social benefits of research.
The paper further explored the evolving university-industry relationship in knowledge transfer and innovation, commodification of knowledge and commercialisation of research in other spheres. Finally, it is argued in this short paper that knowledge is the primary economic driver regionally, nationally and globally and is more accentuated as time unfolds.
The Government of the Republic of Zimbabwe have sought to bring about institutional framework conditions that are favourable to industry-university relationship. It is with no doubt that, the government initiative will accelerate economic transformation in the country and places Zimbabwe to its rightful place in the economic environment, both regional and international.
The onus, progress and success of the proposed initiatives rests squarely with the WILL of the parties involved in the triple helix approach. Together we can and divided we fall. The time is now and your voice and support remains indispensable for the success of this initiative.
Dr Lovemore Matipira has decades of wide-ranging career experience that spanned most aspects of the education sector, as well as the United Nations, research institutions, and the pharmaceutical industry. He has served these organisations in various senior management level positions. He is a founder member of Corporate Governance Watch Trust in Zimbabwe.