There is a raging national debate about higher education and its value and cost to society. In greater Kansas City, higher education has an increasingly important opportunity to demonstrate its value by developing stronger partnerships between public and private, between businesses and academic institutions.
However, a chasm separates the cultures of universities and the private sector, challenging the potential for open alliances that support innovation.
Companies are competitive, proprietary, technology-driven and largely focused on quick returns on investment. They need skilled professionals who can hit the ground running with knowledge from multiple disciplines, combined with soft skills and practical experience. Higher education institutions, on the other hand, are complex organizations focused on serving society through multiple disciplines, scholarly work and research, and applying and transferring knowledge into useful goods and services.
We live in an age where expertise and complex, cross-functional skills are essential. Despite the cultural differences, both business and higher education have to address revenue pressures, daily efficiency and cost-savings issues, the effect of rapidly shifting technologies, and changing legislation, regulations and funding.
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On this broad common ground, the academic and business worlds can more intentionally reach out to each other and become invaluable partners for an increasingly globalized and knowledge-dependent economy.
Higher education can cooperate with industry to enable business growth and advance the local and regional economy by:
Convening leading regional thinkers from business, higher education, government and the community to exchange ideas, define goals and commit to partnership. A willingness to openly discuss potential initiatives will strengthen the region and enhance area businesses’ ability to attract and retain talent and compete nationally and globally, and foster a hub of integrated, interdisciplinary learning and discovery. Thinking in tandem with industry, area colleges and universities can develop programs and courses that support lifelong learning and skills development that provide a competitive edge for local and regional economic growth.
Collaborating on product and technology development. Institutions that have research facilities can partner with area businesses, schools and other colleges to connect the right talent and expertise. Early and continuous collaboration between researchers and technologists in both public and private sectors ensures alignment with what industry and consumers demand. Academic institutions have largely relied on federal support of research, which is declining, while corporate research and development budgets have also been drastically reduced. Defining approaches for collaboration, shared intellectual property and continued high-caliber work allows for cost-sharing and common objectives.
Rethinking — and giving business a voice in — the content and delivery of curriculum. Soliciting business leaders’ input into educational and professional development programs will further enable colleges and universities to respond to changing times and demands. K-State Olathe, for example, is exploring a customizable executive master’s degree in applied science that would allow working professionals to tailor their programs to industry needs, engage with cross-generational teams and fill gaps in their technical and professional knowledge.
Responding at the speed of business and a world in rapid flux. The structures that define higher education, its core values and foundation of intellectual autonomy are not easily subject to change. It is what upholds the standards and rigor of academia. But higher education must have aspects of its operations that can move with greater speed — consistent with the pace of cutting-edge businesses and global operations — to respond to an evolving industry feedback loop, continually adapting to workforce needs, workplace realities and global competition. Industry must, in turn, recognize that the foundations and depth of basic scholarly work that fuel new discoveries and breakthroughs thrive on deliberative, thoughtful and time-consuming studies. Connecting these cultures for high performance and economic output requires some new paradigms and approaches.
Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to serve as resources, facilitators and partners to local and regional businesses. In turn, businesses have an opportunity to engage with and value the expertise and resources of academic institutions. By connecting the public and private sectors in today’s fast-paced global economy and adapting to ever-changing priorities, we will collectively support, educate and train a workforce prepared to innovate and create. This will help Kansas City businesses and the region grow and compete in a knowledge-based economy.
Prema Arasu is CEO and vice provost of K-State Olathe. She can be reached at 913-307-7315 or firstname.lastname@example.org.