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Analysis: University-industry linkages in Ethiopia: The way forward

many world-class universities around the world have transitioned from talking about university-industry linkages to what is referred to entrepreneurial universities

Note on the article: [1]

Hassen Hussein, For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, October 07/2019 – Over the last two decades, Ethiopia has made a great stride in expanding tertiary education (De Beer, Armstrong, Oguamanam, & Schonwetter, 2014).  This notable and commendable expansion however came at the expense of quality education—the primary mission of universities[2].  This in a time when universities all over the world are under intense pressure to assume even more expansive responsibilities prompted by rapid changes in the external environment—on top of their primary mission of providing advanced learning and research (second mission).

Without mastering their first and second missions, universities in Ethiopia are trying to follow their counterparts around the world, albeit in a rather haphazard way. Many are at various stages of setting up business incubation/innovation hubs and technology/science parks not only to provide graduates with an additional avenue for employment but also to contribute towards economic development and provide a better platform for their research activities. They are doing these despite the fact that “Incubators and research parks have a modest effect on graduate start-ups” (Guerrero, Urbano, Cunningham, & Gajon, 2018, p. 166). The question is therefore no longer how Ethiopian universities can make University-Industry linkages worth the while. It is rather how we can view our universities as magnets of the innovation and creativity necessary to transform our economy, when they themselves lack the sufficient scientific and technological base necessary to do so.

Notwithstanding these caveats, greater university-industry linkages are among the new mandates being pushed down the throat of institutions of higher education. As was done elsewhere, the initial impetus for greater university-industry linkages was growing skills mismatch between what students learn at school and what is required of them at work (Pholphirul, 2016). Elsewhere, university-industry linkages were necessitated by the desire to close the loop between basic research and their application in solving real problems encountered by industry and society (Santoro, 2000) as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: A Model of University as a Knowledge Economy’s Key Driver (Etzkowitz, 2019, p. 83)

Prompted by shifting understanding on the sources of sustainable development, nowadays universities are being asked not only to help industries thrive or close the loop between research and its application but also birth new firms and industries. This is because as opposed to other factors of production such as land, labor, and capital, there is a growing recognition that “technological change created by human ingenuity holds out the potential of ever-increasing expansion in the wealth pf nations” (Pelfrey, 2013, pp. 107-108).  Rather than physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and railways, “the key element” of a knowledge-economy’s infrastructure is the entrepreneurial university (Etzkowitz, 2019, p. 84). 

Accordingly, many world-class universities around the world have transitioned from talking about university-industry linkages to what is referred to entrepreneurial universities. Comparatively, even university-industry linkages are at their nascent stages in Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular (De Beer, Armstrong, Oguamanam, & Schonwetter, 2014, p. 327; Ssebuwufu, Ludwick, & Beland, 2012). Efforts by governments, and the universities themselves, to encourage and strengthen these linkages have largely come to naught (Oqubay, 2018). This at a time when employers are increasingly seen lamenting that more and more graduates lack the key skills needed by industry. And in Ethiopia the problem cuts both ways as “most Ethiopian industrial enterprises have weak absorptive capacity for externally generated knowledge” (De Beer et al., 2014, p. 323) and industry players see universities as “unimportant information sources for Ethiopian industry’s innovative activities” (p. 327).  Rather than integral parts of their local communities, universities continue to be viewed as islands and their stance towards the host community is one of an over-towering ivory tower.  That is not all: Before universities talk of university-industry transfers, university needs to build capabilities “to transfer” (Santoro, 2000) as a preparation for its expanded engagement with the external environment (Caggiano, Belezza, & Piccione, 2017). After all, the linkage is “based on the premise that research universities command enormous scientific and technological resources that have not been fully exploited in the search for gaining industrial competitiveness” (Harrison & Leitch, 2010, p. 1245). One of the major reasons why Ethiopian universities are found wanting in this area is the fact that university/TVET faculty lack expertise in working with the productive sector and in promoting entrepreneurship. By most accounts, research by faculty are largely irrelevant for industry and is mostly done for “academic promotion” (Kahsay, 2017, p. 8).  This bodes ill with the growing recognition that views universities as the drivers of economic growth (Caggiano, Bellezza, & Piccione, 2017).  

Ethiopian universities therefore lag behind their counterparts around the world when it comes to their readiness to discharge their role as drivers of economic development. To successfully serve this purpose, our universities need to think of the later-comer-advantage by transitioning straight to entrepreneurial universities, the key ingredients of which are “an entrepreneurial culture, a world-class research faculty, and a community interested in technology as an engine of economic growth” (Pelfrey, 2013, p. 101).  An entrepreneurial culture requires revising the “rules governing institutional responsibilities and professional faculty conduct” (Pelfrey, 2013, p. 112).  A key aspect of the entrepreneurial university is breaking down traditional boundaries between departments and programs, between business, government, and society, between research and its application, between professors and students, and building bridges (Etzkowitz, 2019). The presumption is that innovation would result from the complementarities and synergies from their interactions than their isolation. 

 As oxymoronic as it sounds, the “development of a ‘bureaucracy of change” is another key component of the shift towards the entrepreneurial university (Shattock, 2010, p. 268) since it is only such a bureaucracy that can muster the will and skill to break down the stubborn walls that prevent innovation. According to Burton Clark, writing in 1998, who coined the concept of the entrepreneurial university, the right culture “encourage fluid and change oriented attitudes…[develops] a bureaucracy of change as a key component of their character” (Shattock, 2010, p. 28).

Haramaya University[3] is among the first institutions of higher education in Ethiopia. It has produced some of the most influential leaders and professionals of this country, with the possible exception of the much older Addis Ababa University. Fifty years ago, nobody, be it inside or outside Ethiopia, would locate the town of Bate, where today’s Haramaya and yesterday’s Alemaya university was lodged. I doubt if many would do so even today, fifty years later. If anyone does, it would entirely be because either they lived, went to school or worked there.  Perhaps a decade earlier, today’s storied town of Palo Alto was not much different than our little town of Bate. If one anything distinguished Palo Alto, California from other such small towns, it would have been solely the presence of Stanford University (O’Mara, 2019). But today, this once “one-horse town,” wrote O’Mara, became the Silicon Valley, which “birthed a revolution that has shifted the course of modern civilization” aided by this same Stanford University.  Stanford and Haramaya universities came into being around the same time.  Yes, Palo Alto had an industrial background as opposed to Bate’s agricultural one. Yes, Standford is a private university as opposed to Haramaya. But why so strikingly such a starkly different fate?

Even today, fifty years later, there is no indication that Haramaya University is beginning to see its mission as one of transforming Ethiopia’s or at least Eastern Ethiopia’s economy. This is evident from the very mission of Haramaya University, which reads: “To produce competent graduates, undertake, rigorous, problem-solving, and cutting-edge researches, disseminate knowledge and technologies, and provide demand-driven and transformative community service.” From this mission statement, it is clearly apparent that the university has not fully embraced the third-mission. It sounds like that of a typical Humboldtian research university where “knowledge creation and transmission are put at the center of the university’s mission” (van der Sijde, 2014, p. 893).

The third mission calls for exploiting the knowledge and competencies and technologies accumulated at universities to grow and innovate regional/national economies. Rather than a full embrace of the third mission, Haramaya’s mission statement sounds like an adoption of a narrower and traditional version of it.  And yet Haramaya is experimenting with business incubation with a new entrepreneurship center and other similar initiatives. However, these measures sound like experiments at the margins rather than a thorough-bred institutional reorientation. For an entrepreneurial university, innovation and entrepreneurship are not marginal activities but rather integral parts and actually the very essences of the universities themselves. To wit, Stanford University does not have a separate entrepreneurship/ innovation center: the whole university is one integrated center of entrepreneurship and innovation.

What would it take for Haramaya University to be like Stanford University so as to become the Silicon Valley of Eastern Ethiopia and the Horn with its wings spreading as far as Djibouti and reaching the entire coast of Somalia and perhaps across the seas? An entrepreneurial university readily changes its rules governing institutional responsibilities and professional conduct by the university community. It encourages fluid and change-oriented attitudes—the concept of permeability permeates its operations. Moreover, entrepreneurial universities take entrepreneurship education/excellence as an absolute necessity (Guerrero et al., 2018) rather than a sideshow such as launching a department on entrepreneurship or a new center dedicated to such endeavors. In short, for a university to live up to its latest mission, an entrepreneurial mindset ought to permeate the entire works and parts of the university—which is much more than having a business incubation center or an entrepreneurship department.  Entrepreneurial universities are distinguished by a few other characteristics. A world-class engineering school, a world-class business school, interdisciplinary teams, a university-wide practice where collaboration has replaced competition, a teaching and research process informed by entrepreneurship, and last but not least a buy-in from the entire university community for such practices—just to mention a few distinctive characteristics.

Haramaya University is uniquely placed to be a major player in this part of the country. It is strategically placed with a large and wide backyard. The sheer number of governments in the region—the states of Oromia, Affar, Harari, Somali, and Dire Dawa City Administration—makes it uniquely placed to exploit the complementarities and synergies in their interactions. Moreover, the university is located within a culture noted for its openness in valuing and transcending differences. The geography has a relatively long industrial background—Dire Dawa textiles and railway, not to mention a history of a vibrant creative industry.

But to be an entrepreneurial university, Haramaya needs to take a second look at its modus operandi. For example, can its professional conduct allow faculty to also become entrepreneurs themselves? Like MIT’s, do the rules of the Haramaya University allow “firm formation in underutilized [university] lab space” (Etzkowitz, 2019, p. 86)? Can Haramaya University pay its MBA graduates “a year’s salary to explore firm formation ideas” and thereby take tangible actions towards “de-risking…the start-up process?” (p. 88). Because a university that fully embraced the third mission “is not merely a university executing the third mission in promoting entrepreneurship, but it also incorporates it into teaching and research to maintain its academic identity” (Pelfrey, 2013, p. 904), can Haramaya University faculty get promotion for their work in university-industry linkages or outstanding service to enterprise as CEOs or consultants? Is there a buy-in from the university community for this third mission (Lahikainen, Kolhinen, Ruskovaara, & Pihkala. 2019; Pelfrey, 2013, p. 113)?

[1] This brief piece emerged in response to a request by Haramaya University a few months ago to talk on the ways forward on university-industry linkages. It should be noted that this is a result of a cursory literature review. 

[2] The problem starts downstream and permeates all educational systems—public as well as private.

[3] Even though the focus in this piece is on Haramaya University, the points raised here fully apply to all the universities in the country. The views are shared with the hope that our universities take a more strategic approach to promoting innovation and entrepreneurship rather than merely taking isolated and piecemeal steps.

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