The university-government-industry relationship in the provision of quality higher education has been explained in terms of what has been called the triple helix model. For starters, the triple helix model simply describes the interactions that exist or should exist among three entities – university, government and industry or private sector. In normal situations, this tripartite relationship produces amazing results. But this three-party relationship does not always prevail in all cases as some universities exist and operate in isolation mainly due to skewed planning.
In this article, I will concentrate on the relationship between two of these entities – the university and the private sector, the latter as a vital stakeholder in the operations of higher education institutions. Although I am not going to consider government in this article, leaving this arm of the triple helix for another day, this is not to downplay the critical role it plays in the provision of higher education, especially in state higher education institutions. Equally, there is no doubt that the symbiotic relationship between the private sector and higher education institutions needs to be carefully nurtured for the benefit of both entities and students. Literature on the success and relevance of higher education institutions in societies reveals that the success of higher education institutions depends largely on the roles their stakeholders play, the private sector being one of the crucial stakeholders of institutions.
The term ‘stakeholder’ is often taken for granted or used in a superficial manner, without understanding exactly what it entails. What is ‘stake’? What is at ‘stake’? To understand this, we need a working definition. According to Freeman (1984, p. 6), a stakeholder is “…any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the firm’s objectives.” As is evident here, this definition is from a business perspective. Applying this definition to the relationship between the private sector and higher education institutions, or university-industry interactions, it is apparent that the private sector can affect the achievements of higher education institutions and vice-versa in various ways. Today let’s concentrate more on how universities benefit from such a relationship. It is the prerogative of higher education institutions to exploit what the private sector offers in making them relevant and successful in any given situation. Higher education institutions become relevant and successful when they have programmes that produce graduates who meet the needs of industry.
As an indispensable stakeholder, the private sector contributes to the quality of graduates in different ways. When the private sector provides internships and work-integrated learning opportunities to university students, this assists universities to produce industry-ready graduates. Internships provide students with work-readiness by putting theory into practice. For instance, in the training of accountants, banks and other financial institutions need to open spaces for university students to meet the real world of work. The same goes for students studying engineering, social work, medicine, tourism, law and pure sciences. In order to make industrial attachments or internships meaningful, some universities have arranged with the private sector to have students spend six months to twelve months at companies. It is therefore important for universities to consult the private sector when designing degree programmes in order to incorporate their input. Once this is done, the industry-university collaboration will produce viable sandwich degree programmes that will produce the workforce compatible with the knowledge-based economy we are living in. Put differently, the graduates from such programmes will possess employability skills that the industry needs. Such graduates will easily be employed by the private sector mainly because of their skills and work-readiness.
While this sounds rosy, genuine concern has been raised over how many interns, the industry can absorb taking into account the massification of higher education. The private sector, which is limited in most cases, cannot provide internships for large numbers of students at once. This leaves many students in a quandary. The solution is to rationalise enrolments in various programmes so that universities do not produce a glut of graduates that flood the market.
In addition to internships, the private sector as a key stakeholder in higher education provides scholarships and bursaries to needy university students. A healthy university-industry relationship is most likely to lead the acquisition of state-of-the-art equipment for universities to facilitate the learning of students. It is common that some companies provide substantial amounts of funds which are used to build schools, institutes, and laboratories at universities. We have witnessed some of these buildings being named after eminent people in our society. In other words, infrastructure development is another way the private sector can assist with to improve the training of graduates that will be the future workforce.
Also, the private sector can fund research to be conducted by professor and their students at the university. Commissioned researches have yielded excellent results in some universities. By engaging in research with their professors, students hone their research skills and experiences which they will utilize at the workplace.
It must be noted that establishing and maintaining a thriving university-industry relationship requires meticulous planning and managing; it cannot be achieved through haphazard practices. In a study titled Managing university-industry relations: A study of institutional practices in 12 countries, Martin (2000, p, 35) found out that “… one of the crucial success factors in the management of the university-industry linkages is the availability of an institutional strategy for the development of such relations, for instance laid down in a strategic planning document, a development plan or any other written statement of policy.” This explains why leading universities have established departments or units who sole responsibility is to link the university to industry all the time. The departments or units make it their duty to manage the university-industry interactions professionally so that in the end both entities enjoy the benefits of such a relationship. And at the centre of such a healthy relationship are students who must leave the university ready to serve industry and society well in various capacities.