Tue | Sep 18, 2018

Densil Williams | University-industry partnerships: the next frontier for economic growth

Published:Sunday | November 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Densil Williams

Sustained high levels of economic growth are still eluding Caribbean economies almost a decade after the global financial crisis of 2008. Indeed, the situation in Jamaica is a good case in point.

Jamaica, after showing economic growth for more than 10 quarters since 2014, has slipped, technically, into a recession (i.e., two consecutive quarters of negative growth).

The case in Jamaica is not unique. The growth outlook for countries like Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago make for uncomfortable reading as well. It is no doubt that Caribbean economies will need a revival of sorts in order to reverse the current levels of economic decline and to bring sustained economic growth over the medium to long run.

Old thinking on development and the unbridled attachment to the neo-liberal paradigm to economic growth has to be rethought. While the neo-liberalism has delivered benefits to most nations, the attendant inequality that comes with its delivery of growth and the social dislocation caused, it makes economic growth pale in comparison to human suffering. New thinking and actions are needed to revitalise the growth agenda in Caribbean economies.

Most of the sectors that have driven growth in Caribbean economies in the past are now dying. The petrochemical sector in Trinidad; agriculture and bauxite in Jamaica and Guyana, and tourism in Barbados are not the most competitive globally.

The inhospitable globalised trading system is making these sectors redundant as they are unable to compete effectively with more efficient and productive destinations. If Caribbean economies are to have a chance of long-term sustained economic growth, they will need new sectors that are internationally competitive in order to compete on the global stage. These new sectors will only come from increased research and development.

As such, universities and research centres and institutes will have to play a big role in the revitalisation of Caribbean economies.


University/Industry Partnerships


It is no secret that all countries that have moved from developing to developed status have used their universities as a key pillar on which to rest their development strategy. Singapore, which achieved the fastest growth rate in the early 2000s, is a strong case study of how university-industry partnership have spurred development.

That economy was the envy of the world by the early 1990s, as it moved from an impoverished nation a mere 30 years prior to achieve developed-country status in a short period. One of the key factors that led to the precipitous rise in the country's fortunes is the deep connection between its university sector and industry.

For example, the biotechnology sector was given high priority in Singapore's developmental agenda, and as such, many pharmaceutical plants set up operations there.

Similarly, countries like Malaysia prioritised electronics, engineering and petrochemicals and have set up long-term relationships with universities to provide the level of innovation that can lead to growth and competitiveness of the firms in those sectors. The economic growth performance of these countries is there for all to see.

Similarly, the rising economic juggernaut, China, has strong relationships between university-research institutes and industry. This did not happen by chance but was promulgated by deliberate policy choice of government.

The 1985 Science and Technology Policy in China led to significant developments in the academic-industry partnership development agenda. Data have shown that China has more than 300 research parks that are used to drive higher levels of productivity and competitiveness in their industries.

The expansive levels of economic growth China witnessed over the last 30 years should not come as a surprise given the deep linkages between academia and industry. Indeed, it is argued that the university-affiliated industries were the driving force behind the rapid economic developments in China.

Also, in the United States, university-industry partnership is strong and making a significant contribution to economic growth and expansion. Data show that MIT alone has more than 700 companies working with its faculty on significant projects that can transform industry sectors in the country. Significantly, the US government spends almost three per cent of its GDP on research and development, providing the enabling environment for university-industry to form alliances to drive greater productivity and competitiveness among its firms.


Stronger Alignment Developing in the Caribbean


While the most recent figures for expenditure on research and development for Caribbean countries was not readily available, old figures suggest that these countries spend less than one per cent of their GDP on research and development.

Further, not many of the countries in the region have a physical university campus to drive the link between university and industry. Even those countries with physical campuses of the UWI and their own national universities, they have not pursued in a strong way the link between university and industry. There are still wide gaps in the relationship between academia and industry in these countries.

On the one hand, academia demands research output for some specific purposes (e.g., publication in academic journals, promotion in the academy, etc), while industry demands research for advancing the competitiveness of their products and services. These two sets of objectives do not always converge.

However, in recent times, the exigencies of the development agenda in Caribbean economies have forced both university and industry to work more closely to find solutions to the developmental challenges of the day.

Today, universities are designing initiatives to strengthen their relationships with industry. While these relationships exist, they are generally disjointed and do not have the desired impact that will advance the development agenda of the nation state.


University Science Parks


One of the ways that developed economies have overcome the disjointed relationship between university and industry is through the establishment of university science parks. These parks serve as a significant organisational architecture that combine the output from university research and the demands from industry for solutions to drive greater levels of competitiveness and productivity.

The university parks will also drive stronger levels of innovation, which could lead to new industries that can compete in a highly, knowledge driven, global economy.

The development of university parks across the Caribbean will no doubt provide a strong booster to the developmental agenda of these economies. Since the traditional sectors are reaching their maturity, Caribbean economies will have to find new sectors in order to compete effectively in the global economy.

These new sectors will come from the research and development that the university parks will facilitate. The collaboration between university and industry will go a far way towards revitalising development of Caribbean economies. This is a policy agenda that governments in the region must push aggressively.

- Densil A. Williams is professor of international business at the UWI. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and densilw@yahoo.com.