Both Sides Now – The University’s Product: Part I of the University-Industry Relationship

Perspective makes all the difference when evaluating something. Take, for instance, the Judy Collins’ hit song “Both Sides Now” in which she makes the case that perspective is paramount for examining life, love and even clouds. The same is true when considering university students, particularly in the university-industry relationship.

Students are often viewed as the university’s customer. I would imagine that a majority of current or former university students (or especially their parents) who “paid for” degrees would make this statement.  Anyone who has attended or taught a university class is bound to have heard this remark.

But I’ve looked at it from both sides now, and in point of fact, I would argue that the opposite is true, especially with respect to the university-industry relationship.  Students are the university’s product.

When students graduate from the university, they take with them everything that they gleaned during the previous years:  knowledge from textbooks and lectures, wisdom from professors and mentors, hands-on experiences in labs, involvement in group projects, and yes, social skills.  Students are a sum of their unique understandings, capabilities and proficiencies, and as they enter the “real” world, they rely on these aptitudes to serve as their qualifications to sell themselves, hoping to begin careers in various industries.  So what happens when university graduates seek employment?  First and foremost, their desired industry must view them as potential employees.

Industries look to the university to hire students and expect the graduates to step into positions, bringing with them new ideas, capabilities and experiences that will advance the company. Time and time again, when I visit with Arkansas companies, I hear that they are seeking university graduates who are not only adequately prepared for the jobs available, but who are also innovative, have diverse skill sets and experiences and are driven to advance the companies in their industries.  Some companies are happy to offer training programs to help new hires, but this costs the businesses valuable time and money that could be used in other areas to grow and expand, or to better compensate talented employees.

It’s a simple business model.  Just as companies have products and look to their customers when developing these products, the university also has a desired product (students) and should look to its primary customer (industries) when developing curriculum, programs and projects that will best prepare students to be hired and be effective employees who contribute to the innovation, progression and success of companies.

Therefore, an open university-industry relationship is imperative. Industry and the university must work together to enrich the basic skills and principles currently taught, still regarding the specific requirements for certification and accreditation currently offered, so that students not only meet the requirements for jobs, but  they also have augmented skill sets and research capabilities that prepare them to think innovatively and help move companies forward.  The two-way communication between the university and industry is essential so that industries can inform the university about specific technology needs and desires facing companies, allowing industries to take part in students’ educations and help shape future employees. Likewise, the open dialogue also allows the university to share its unique research strengths and capabilities with industries and update companies about new advancements in technology. Additionally, the university can offer ideas and potential solutions that could significantly benefit the companies.

The University of Arkansas has programs that are facilitating this relationship.  Next month, Part II of The University-Industry Relationship will describe the Office of Entrepreneurship’s IGNITE (Industry Generating New Ideas and Technology through Education) program and its efforts to prepare students for careers by building partnerships and enabling dialogue between the University of Arkansas and Arkansas’ companies.  It’s a valuable program for the University of Arkansas and its students, and for Arkansas’ companies. It offers the perspective from both sides now.

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