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Working with business and forging partnerships

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Forging partnerships

The two main aspects of industry-university collaboration we have discussed so far are the creation and transfer of knowledge, and executive development. But how can universities set up beneficial partnerships which profit all parties – themselves, their students, and the industry concerned?

Connor and Hirsh (2008) are against universities seeing themselves as supplier and industry as customer, as might be a logical interpretation of the need to develop students with employability skills. Instead, they advocate relationships that are based on genuine collaboration:

"Employer demand for higher learning is more likely to get converted successfully into HE supply if there is genuine collaboration and mutual benefit in the partnership" (p. 9).

Ian Maude would certainly agree with this analysis, believing that both parties need to benefit equally from the relationship:

"We would want an organization to gain as much from us as we gain from them. It's not just that you're a business and we're supplying you with something, we see it as very much a two-way thing."

It is also important to understand that each side has a lot to offer the other. According to Ian Maude:

"Leeds Metropolitan University is a big organization, and there are lots of things you could use us for and we would want you to take advantage of that. In the same way, we would want to take advantage of what you can offer us, by helping to keep us current and find out what's going on, that keeps us ahead of the game as a business school."

Connor and Hirsh (2008) offer the following advice on how to turn a partnership into a win-win situation:

  • Businesses should clearly identify their needs and make sure that they choose the right partner. Each party should understand the other's constraints and capabilities.

Ian Maude of Leeds Metropolitan commented that Emerald was very clear about what its needs were – it had done its homework and knew that the MA in International Business was the best for its business. He finds, however, that a lot of businesses come wanting a master's degree course, and when you ask them why, they often can't say. With Emerald, however, it was a question of focusing not on what, but how.

  • Both sides should provide a clear point of contact: for the university, this needs to be both at the business centre and at the faculty.
  • Learner needs should be taken account of – they are the main customer.
  • Providers must have the resource to deliver – does the HEI have sufficient staff, or can they use external staff if necessary?
  • Are the right sort of relationships in place to sustain the arrangement, and is there support from senior management as well as the people who deal with the day to day?
  • Both sides need to recognize what the other can bring.
  • Review, including the all important learner feedback, should be built into the relationship.
  • Effective governance should be in place to support the partnership.
  • Don't just think in terms of a one-off relationship: make sure that the relationship is ongoing, for example through graduate recruitment.

They also believe that such arrangements are fundamental for universities if they are to gain an understanding of how things work in the real world and build up case studies. All this helps them to provide students with an education that will make them employable.

For universities, nurturing such partnerships can often be a slow process. According to Ian Maude, it's a question of changing people's perception of the university as purely involved in the education of 18-21 year olds, and helping them see a range of other possibilities such as continuing professional development, professional qualifications, research, etc. Partnerships develop when a business becomes aware of a particular need and sees how a university can meet it.

Connor and Hirsh (2008) believe that this is a matter of improved marketing, both external – so that relevant points of contact are developed – and internal – so that faculty are ready to support the partnerships.

Universities need to have a business-like attitude, being responsive and welcoming, but also realistic about costs and sustainability. They should also take a strategic approach, building on a particular area in which they are strong, such as recruitment.

According to Ian Maude, partnerships do not happen overnight, and can take years to nurture. You may need to build on something quite small, such as a company giving a lecture to students, or a co-hosted event. Project placements can also be a good way of developing links.

Universities should also play to their strengths, for example Leeds Metropolitan is particularly strong in financial services and law, which in turn is based on its geographical position in a big financial and legal centre. Forming partnerships with other providers is a good way of maximizing possibilities by creating a critical mass of strengths.

Knowledge House is a consortium of five universities in the North East of England – Durham, Newcastle, Sunderland, Teesside and Northumbria – and has been described by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as an example of global best practice for university-business engagement.

Making the initial links can be difficult. According to Ian Maude, the UK has a big advantage in that it has intermediaries such as chambers of commerce, and, being "right at the heart of these organizations" with members of the university on their boards, gives a head start with networking.