Seven lessons from the academic-industry collaboration pilots in Uganda
By Jackie Kitiibwa
“What good is engineering research with no practical relevance?” reads a post on Quora from a seemingly frustrated PhD student. The student laments that a sizable portion of the research conducted at their university seems to have limited or no real-world application. “Many of these papers seem to be published just for the sake of it,” they added. Often, the response to such sentiments is, “You never know when seemingly irrelevant research will become relevant.”
In the past few years, recognition of the need to make academia more relevant or suited to meet world problems has grown. This has led to increased interest in academic-industry collaboration (AIC). Despite the consensus on the importance of the AIC to firms, academia, and the economy, many institutions are at times reluctant to implement long-term collaborative frameworks. In cases where collaborations happen, the success and outcomes of these partnerships differ significantly.
There has hardly been research on academia and industry collaborations in Uganda, especially in the financial sector. To gain insights and support knowledge building in this area, FSD Uganda instigated a pilot of research collaborations between universities and industry associations. The initiative was conceptualised following an in-depth capacity needs assessment for financial sector industry associations. The needs assessment identified limited research skills as a significant capacity gap that limits industry associations from performing their advocacy and market facilitation roles effectively. Industry associations are unable to effectively contribute to policy formulation because of a lack of data or fail to convince policymakers towards change because of a lack of convincing evidence. Without sufficient, proven, believable, and triangulated data no headway can be made.
FSD Uganda recognises the important role that financial sector industry associations play in promoting responsible financial inclusion within their respective environments. To this end, we support the industry associations to build their institutional capacity to support and promote financial inclusion. Our focus has been on building evidence-based advocacy that can help in better policy and decision-making. We also want to empower the associations to be sustainable. This way they will be able to advocate for their members’ interests with limited dependency on donor partners or consultants.
To achieve this, each industry association was paired with an academic institution to collaborate on a topic of research that would be relevant to their respective sector clients. Academic-industry collaboration is a powerful tool that promises three outcomes:
- First, a collaboration between associations and academia is a creative and cost-effective approach that ensures that there is sustainable knowledge transfer between practitioners and researchers.
- Secondly, such partnerships will go a long way to motivate researchers/academia to take all possible steps to collaborate with practitioners to apply what is discovered in research and could get researchers into new and interesting areas.
- Thirdly, this approach could reorient the incentives for academicians and help achieve a better balance between conducting research and ensuring that it positively changes practice and resource allocation. This would allow academia to increase its relevance in developing solutions that can be used to solve real-world problems.
Lessons from the pilot project
- Include AIC in the organisation’s overall strategy – AICs are resource-intensive and need significant commitment from management and staff in terms of time, funding, and human resources. Most of the projects were significantly delayed because team members were not readily available due to other commitments at work. This was common in the early stages of the projects. Staff from the different institutions were still expected to perform their daily duties while also committed to the project. Concerted efforts from the FSD Uganda team were needed to convince the institution management of the importance of the pilot and to avail resources for the teams to work effectively. It is important that such activities are included in the strategy with earmarked work plans, and sufficient funding attached to them.
- Develop a research agenda – As would have been expected, institutions that had a structured and well-defined research agenda moved faster. Some institutions did not proceed with the research because of a lack of funds, or no operational structures to advance the work. For institutions that did not have clear research plans, considerable time and multiple back-and-forth was needed to get partners aligned on the research topics or objectives. Sometimes these had to be changed or tweaked following governance changes within an organisation. Once the funding was available, these were quick to move ahead. Market facilitators and funders should consider supporting institutions to put in place a robust research agenda before such partnerships are formed.
- Pre-collaboration preparation and training – For AIC partnerships, the need for rigorous preparation and training is crucial. While the inception of the project included training on research skills it became evident during the implementation of the project that training on other softer skills like how to handle partnerships, negotiation skills, communication, and project management were equally and, in some cases, more essential. On the flip side, while some teams found the inception research training basic, teams that were relatively new to research struggled to comprehend the concepts. A pre-training needs assessment is therefore imperative to understand gaps and customise the training accordingly.
- Choosing the right partner – Expectedly, partners who had worked together before were able to move faster than those with no partnership history. Surprisingly, in one of the collaborations, project activities progressed well even without prior collaboration amongst the team largely due to the strong engagement of the project leader and good team composition. Having a strong project leader with great stakeholder management skills was the key success driver for such collaborations.
- Funding – Outlining and emphasising the purpose of the funding for the research was important for both industry and academic teams. There was a notion that the funding was intended as professional fees for a consultancy. This brought about misalignment in expectations with some teams dissatisfied with the meagre stipend provided for the research activities. As a facilitator, FSD Uganda envisaged that the payout was meant to offset some of the costs and facilitate smaller expenses for the research. The expectation was that participant institutions would provide additional funding to support the project. However, it is important to note that most institutions had not budgeted for this project, and it was, justifiably, challenging to mobilise the funds. FSD Uganda also wanted to test if such collaborations would help limit the need for local industry players to hire expensive consultants.
- Roles and responsibilities – It is critical to articulate the roles and responsibilities of the institutions and the team members. For each of the partnerships, the roles and responsibilities were different. Some viewed the academic and industry as equal partners. But while they worked together to develop the instruments and define the scope of work and research sample – each undertook the survey work independently. Other collaborations involved the academic teams conducting the research while the association reviewed the tools and reports and provided comments. These two approaches were not considered ideal as we realised it limited knowledge transfer for academia to learn from industry and vice versa. A better model was the academic team working closely with the industry, handholding them where necessary through the process. This collaboration resulted in marked knowledge transfer and there was a lot of growth evidenced by the team members.
- Collaboration Agreements – Each collaboration had different partnership arrangements. This was caused by many factors some of which included – the institution’s internal policies and processes, and whether there was an existing collaboration arrangement between the two institutions. FSD Uganda’s internal agreements also played a part in providing a framework from which these agreements were drawn. For collaborations that existed before, the partners decided on how the research funds would be split amongst themselves. Despite such arrangements, there were some disagreements in cost-sharing among some partners.
Academic–industry collaborations present a cost-effective and practical approach that strengthens the growth of knowledge and provides for practical relevance to real – world problems. More such collaborations should be encouraged and supported.