March 20, 2018
THE AUSTRALIAN

Industry-engaged degrees bring the experienced to the partnership

Keith Houghton

Australia’s universities and the business community will benefit from mechanisms that support a more active joint engagement in research.  

These benefits are unarguable — the issue is how, and there are many valid perspectives on this. While we know that universities are major contributors to research engagements in this country, they are nothing like a monopoly supplier of research expertise or capacity. They are, however, a near monopoly supplier of research training.

With little fanfare, a year ago the federal government announced as its priority the development of what is referred to as “industry-engaged research degrees”.

An industry-engaged PhD program is more common in countries such as Germany and Israel.

Within Australia, there have been some earlier adopters of this type of program. Two of these are the University of Technology Sydney and Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Within my organisation, several coaches have direct involvement with these types of programs, here or abroad, with a combined decade of experience and perspectives.

Such programs attract high-achieving, mature-age, strongly motivated, domestic part-time candidates who normally are in regular employment and — importantly — are data rich or have access to valuable data that is rarely accessible to university-based research.

These candidates bring interests and insights not routinely present in other PhD candidates and contribute a richness to PhD programs and to research agendas that are not readily available by conventional means.

These candidates also come armed with one or more powerfully motivated research questions of direct and strategic application to their industry or community.

A common feature for students coming from the business sector is that while they are industry-experienced and highly competent, they have little or no research and research methodology training.

The types of candidates vary from biotech entrepreneurs and aviation experts to executives in healthcare and professional service firms. They are rarely present in conventional research degree programs.

This is a market largely untapped in Australia and exists only where there is a clear cohort-based “industry-engaged” orientation to the program.

A common feature for these students is that while they are industry-experienced and highly competent, they have little or no research and research methodology training. They do not come having just completed first-class honours degrees.

As best we know, with only one exception, enrolments in these programs have risen year after year generally by virtue of word-of-mouth recommendations. There is anecdotal evidence that there is considerable unmet demand. Additionally, thanks to the express policy position of the federal government, there is even an international opportunity in this field partnering with a highly respected overseas university.

Much of the industry engagement effort in institutions appears to be driven by one or both of: ensuring that traditional PhD candidates are linked with industry and therefore with real-world problems; and ensuring that candidates with little industry experience are provided with experiential and formal learning opportunities to build skills, knowledge and workplace-ready capabilities.

The industry-engaged PhD turns the equation on its head. Candidates in industry-engaged programs have all the “work ready” capabilities — and normally considerable industry (and life) experience.

The industry-engaged PhD leads to industry-based candidates who then require support with upskilling in research and research methodology.

The sector’s near-monopoly position in research training could be a vital component in the development of industry-university research engagement. A swing towards the industry-engaged PhD as an offering may well boost engagement substantially.

Keith Houghton is chief academic strategist of Research Coaching Australia.