All over the world, most tertiary institutions survive, not only on subventions from governments and their agencies but mostly on research grants from private sector institutions especially industrial complexes. A remarkable example is in the United States of America where the Silicon Valley high tech facilities and the universities in California, in particular, Sanford University thrive on a symbiotic relationship.
That is not the case in Nigeria where, perennially, universities go cap in hand to the government for funds to run their programmes. And because these funds are either not available or are insufficient, the resultant situation gives rise to constant altercation between the government and the staff of these institutions who complain on behalf of the universities’ administration of underfunding and other sundry short comings.
The irony of it is that research funds that should go to the universities end up in the private pockets of lecturers who operate mini consultancies that rub off negatively on the institutions who suffer because the lecturers use their time and facilities without the institution benefitting in any way from the arrangement. Curiously, it is this same lecturers, hiding under the canopy of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), who make very strident noise to blackmail the government in an attempt to eat their cake and still have it by embarking on sometimes frivolous strikes that end up pushing the academic calendar years back.
A recent development is that some private sector businesses have decided to intervene directly in these institutions by donating structures or awarding scholarships. Commendable as these are, they do not adequately address the funding challenge that the universities face. That is the point the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Dr Maikanti Baru, made in a lecture recently at the convocation ceremony of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ABTU), Bauchi when he advocated for increased and sustained synergy between Nigerian universities and, in particular, the oil and gas industry, so as to harness the noticeable gains in the implementation of the Nigerian Content agenda in the Petroleum Sector.
He noted that the Ivory Tower and the Industry must seek workable and symbiotic partnerships for the good of the institution, the growth of the Industry and of course, the economy as a whole.
Dr. Baru raised some posers that ought to arouse the curiosity, if not interest, of stakeholders both in the private/real sector and not excluding some high level government corporate institutions like the NNPC. Among these posers are: What makes collaboration between university and industry work? Why do many partnerships fail to yield the desired result? And how have some companies and their academic partners successfully overcome their inherent differences to forge a higher level of strategic partnership?
As pointed out above, in the case of USA, Baru said that some studies conducted on European Universities-Business Cooperation undertaken by a French group posited that it requires strong university leadership, and a faculty that understands business, to emplace incentives and structures for academics to bridge that gap, overcome the cultural divide and make collaboration work.
According to those studies, the GMD said that the experts further argued that the European universities could significantly increase their attractiveness to industry by making industry partnerships a clear priority and by attracting and developing a pool of academics who have worked in industry before. Nigerian universities should be listening.
To drive the point home, the NNPC GMD made it clear that the interplay of the role of the university, which includes undertaking scientific research, incubation of technology and breeding of high skilled manpower with that of industry’s promotion of innovation, are both necessary to enhancing, specifically, the Nigerian Content policy in the oil and gas industry.
Baru, using his own industry, oil and gas, as example but not limiting his argument to it further posited that executives and academics managing partnerships must agree on the core elements needed to make a partnership work, noting that leadership, vision and determination are the most essential ingredients in this regard.
In that highly researched paper, he insisted that to trigger substantial impact, university leadership needs to consider making collaboration with industry a top priority and communicate the message regularly to the entire academic community and to captains of industry whenever the opportunities arise. This is not happening at the moment. At least not at a desirable level.
The NNPC boss said` `They should headhunt and attract retired industry experts into their fold and get them to teach, research, co-mingle and rub minds thereby achieving what the European researchers advocated as a way to getting maximum university-Industry collaborations’’ .
Making reference to the efforts of government to initiate this process, Baru said that though the Nigerian Content practice had become fully institutionalized as a National Development imperative which redefined and opened up new frontiers for national economic growth and social stability in the Oil and Gas Industry, there is still a yawning gap to close in respect of instituting sustainable development innovation.
“Strategic partnerships need input at the highest level from both the company and the university. A joint steering team with senior academics and company executives with built-in flexibility is required to sustain long-term strategic partnerships that work best,’’ he said.
The GMD also noted that the first step to a healthy partnership is assessing the core academic strengths of the university and the core research opportunities of the company to identify prospects for collaboration based on shared vision among other measures.
Baru recommended that the ATBU leadership and by extension other universities, set up a university-Industry consultative forum with advisory board from selected industry sectors where they are well positioned to develop partnerships and seek endorsement of institutions across the nation to kick start a sustained dialogue as the first step.
The NNPC boss’s position is restated here as an agenda-setting proposition designed to enable the ivory tower redirect its effort in their search for alternative sources of funding for their programmes. Why they may not hid the call by the erudite scholar and now big time corporate player is that funds from the private corporate world is always accounted for. But funds from government sources are often not accounted for because they are considered as freebies. That is why Baru’s call may likely fall on deaf ears even as it is the most effective path to restoring the ivory tower to their pristine glory.
– Dangana is a public affairs commentator based in Lagos