Campus Review

By Fiona Wood

Entrepreneurship and innovation between universities and business has to be promoted if Australia is to keep up.

Why do Australian governments bury their heads in the sand? Because that is where the holes are. But we need more than holes in the sand. Our minerals may have helped us weather the ongoing uncertainties in the global economy, but for any government to base our future prosperity on cyclical commodities markets is reckless to say the least. Especially as the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report shows Australia slipping in ranking on both innovation capacity and business sophistication, the ''two critical drivers of competitiveness for advanced economies''.

While Australia has been riding the mining boom our competitors have been building the mind-sets and skills needed for the knowledge and technology intensive industries in services and manufacturing that are the real key to driving economic growth.

They are designing innovation policies that prioritise increasing investments in basic science; leverage the competitive advantage of highly skilled immigrants; address serious deficiencies in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education; and capitalise on information and communication technologies. They also recognise the vital role that entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship play in the effective transfer of new knowledge to the market place.

If we are to thrive in the new world order dominated by Asian economies we must also take a systemic approach to innovation and entrepreneurship. This requires embedding entrepreneurial skills and thinking within our education system and building an entrepreneurial culture that supports risk rather than penalising failure. We need to promote fluidity of movement between universities and the business sector as well as meeting industry demand for top quality STEM graduates with skills in innovation and entrepreneurship.

We must build on the entrepreneurial talent, skills and good intentions of our immigrant population; commit greater levels of funding to support the mobility of our S&T talent internationally; and expand provisions for ‘‘study abroad’’ experiences and linguistic competences for our tertiary students. In April this year the federal government launched its research workforce strategy. Particular challenges addressed were the shortage of doctoral graduates working in industry and Australia’s lack of effective competition for international talent. Building innovation capabilities into university research training programs was identified as a key part of the workforce strategy.

So what might we learn from our overseas competitors with respect to these challenges, particularly in terms of entrepreneurship education, where the World Economic Forum quite correctly assigns us ‘‘fledgling status’’?

The EU offers a clear lead. Its 7th Framework Program (2007-2013) has a range of initiatives aimed at building innovation skills and promoting entrepreneurship, including programs aimed at fostering: ‘‘Innovative research in SMEs and training the next generation of research entrepreneurs.’’ Also, through the new European Industrial Doctorates, companies are directly involved in doctoral training intended to develop innovative aptitudes and entrepreneurial mindsets in graduates; provide adequately trained researchers for industry needs; and enhance the research potential and competitiveness of European companies and SMEs.

Similarly, the EU's Innovative Doctoral Programs are designed to equip doctoral candidates with innovative skills (scientific and transversal) in three core dimensions – intersectoral, international and interdisciplinary. The EU also has Knowledge Partnerships between businesses and tertiary institutions, established to create new joint curricula and courses and “innovative ways of delivering education and knowledge, with a strong involvement of Businesses”. Since 1996, there have also been 50,000 beneficiaries of Marie Curie Fellowships, which promote research excellence and mobility across borders and sectors.

How does that stack up against the Australian government's research workforce strategy with its 200 Researchers in Industry Training Awards? Or the laudable, but tiny, $1 million investment in a doctoral training centre for industry in mathematics? It's certainly small beer compared with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), set up in 2008 with an initial five-year budget of more than €300 million to address Europe’s innovation gap. Its 22 members come from education, research and business. A key mission is to develop a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs through masters and doctoral programs that ‘‘integrate entrepreneurship, innovation and risk management content and include mobility and practical business experience aspects’’.

Universities, too, have a major role to play. In the US, Stanford University is seen as an exemplar of entrepreneurship education and technology commercialisation. Examples include a 20-week evening program in innovation and entrepreneurship that brings together doctoral and non business graduate students with Silicon Valley innovators, scientists and engineers ‘‘to gain greater understanding of the pathways to commercialising innovations and to learn general management skills’’.

Stanford also offers a four-week Summer Institute for Entrepreneurship that teaches entrepreneurship to non-business graduate students in life sciences, engineering and the humanities.

The Kauffman Foundation’s Kauffman Campuses are also playing a key role in transforming the way colleges and universities prepare students for success in the American economy. The campuses were started in 2003 with the awarding of $US5 million each to eight universities to make entrepreneurship education available across their campuses, enabling any student, regardless of field of study, to access entrepreneurial education. A specific goal of the Kauffman Campuses is ‘‘to create a cultural transformation on college campuses that results in graduates who are dynamic and risk-takers’’ irrespective of subject field.

How do Australian universities compare? When it comes to entrepreneurship and genuine partnerships with industry, it's time they took some risks. The University of Queensland Career Advantage PhD program might be a start in this direction. See Campus Review story UQ Launches PhD career Program.

This article is based on a report produced for the US Studies Centre, Entrepreneurship in Australia: the missing links. The complete report (PDF) can be downloaded by clicking here.

Fiona Wood consults to a range of international organisations on workforce, research funding and evaluation issues. She was a member of the European Commission RDG expert working group on the green paper, 'The European Research Area: New Perspectives.' She is an adjunct senior lecturer and senior research fellow at the University of New England.