Thoughts for IT/BPO industry - academia partnerships
The IT/BPO industry has been identified as one of the largest revenue generators for the country's economy. By 2015, the IT/BPO industry is planning to achieve export earnings of US$ 1 billion. This target cannot be achieved by the IT/BPO industry alone, as it requires computing manpower input produced by the academia. However, the academia also has certain constraints to meet the demand for IT professional from the industry. Manpower creation for today's needs (eg. craftsmen, technicians) generally comes under vocational education and producing graduates for today's need is just of the objectives of the university education. Yet the academia has a distinct responsibility to produce manpower for tomorrow's world leading to discovery of new knowledge.
Such manpower will also work as trend setters for the industry. It is undisputedly accepted that today's industry can do a significant contribution to drive knowledge discovery in the future. This is because, without today's industry, academics cannot find the limitations of existing knowledge. What appears here is the need for synergising interests/potentials of academia and the industry in a more organised manner. I have freely used the term industry to refer to the IT/BPO industry throughout this article.
Input from the academia is the key to all kinds of developments of a country. Having recognising IT/BPO industry as one of the largest export revenue generators, it is essential to study how the academia can contribute to this endeavour. The strategy to accomplish this goal must be nothing but partnerships/collaborations between the industry and the academia. To understand how this could be done in the first place, let us become aware of the issues frequently cited by the academia and IT/BPO industry.
I have already expressed most of the ideas presented here at two workshops organised by SLASSCOM (Sri Lanka Association of Software and Services Companies) on industry-academia partnerships. I wish to bring those ideas into a wider forum to come up with a national level proposal for industry academia partnerships.
The Government has already declared 200 percent tax reduction for the industry with regard to industry sponsored research with academia. Strengthening research works in the state university system has a direct impact on improving the global visibility of our universities, consequently elevating their global ranking (e.g. Webometric). State universities with high ranking in the region could attract foreign students for degree programs and contribute to develop the country's economy. Providing educational opportunities for foreign students has been one of the major revenue generators for developed countries and I believe Sri Lanka should also explore this opportunity in the region. Therefore, promoting research partnership between industry and academia has multifaceted benefits for the development of the country.
Issues in a nutshell
Establishing research partnerships between industry and academia is essential for the development of any country. In this sense, the academia produces manpower for the industry, whereas the industry utilises the manpower effectively. The industry is the best place to get exposed to experience the issues in existing technologies and to gain an insight for the discovery of new knowledge by the academia. There is generally a disparity between the industry expectations and the output of the academia. This can be addressed by having a close rapport with the industry and academia to identify needs and issues faced by both parties.
Below are some common issues recognised by the academia and the industry.
More IT professionals
In the current set up, the IT industry always calls for more computing graduates. They state that there is a lack of computing graduates, which results in creating a barrier for the development and the expansion of the IT industry. However, the majority of existing software companies does not require IT professionals with in-depth technical knowledge. Certificate and Diploma holders in IT contribute in a capacity similar to craftsmen and technicians for the software industry. Sometimes the industry prefers to recruit IT diploma and certificate holders over IT graduates at a cheaper rate. If the requirement of the industry is only for general software development this cannot be avoided.
Therefore, producing computing graduates to fit into different segments of the software industry is vital to meet the expectation of the industry. In this sense, the software industry should also be expanded beyond the general software industry and target for certain specialised software development. Such specialised industries require a wide spectrum of computing graduates. In achieving this, the academia has to produce not only IT graduates, but also computing graduates in broad areas of Computer Science, Computer Engineering and Software Engineering. Thus producing more and more computing professionals of the same calibre should not be encouraged.
One of the key reasons for the graduates to choose industry over the academia is the attractive remuneration package offered by the industry. Though this trend creates short term benefits for the industry there are negative outcomes in the long run. This is because, if the computing graduates do not join the academia, university system will not have qualified academics to produce more computing professionals. In fact, this issue has a negative effect in producing manpower for the industry and the academia.
The issue has prevailed for several decades. Computing graduates joining the academia and the industry are equally important for the development of the country. Either academia or the industry cannot be given priority at the expense of the other. However, strengthening the academia will produce long term benefits for both parties. Therefore, pumping too much manpower into the industry is counter productive.
Meeting the industry
All computing degrees require students to do a project, write a dissertation followed by a viva voce, One of the common complaints made by many industries is computing graduates lack soft skills such as communication skills, negotiation skills, and ability to work as a team.
Generally, in the final year, students tend to choose modules that are more industry oriented after their industrial training.
This trend is not positive as the students should not concentrate only on the short term benefits. Instead, the students should realise that academic-oriented modules offered in the final year aim at inculcating self learning skills and ability to adapt for new technologies.
At times, the industry claims that the undergraduate projects are not relevant to the industry. Certainly, some student projects may not have direct industry relevance, but the skills gained by doing such projects should be applicable for the industry as well.
In my view, there are two sides to this matter. The academia produces graduates not only for the industry but also for higher education.
Such graduates are necessarily expected to be adaptable for technological changes without confining merely to the current technologies. This is why the academia is required to maintain a balance between industry-based projects and academia-based projects.
By building close relations between the academia and the industry, certain industry-based projects can also be conducted leading to postgraduate research degrees. This culture has not been fully blossomed in Sri Lanka yet.
It appears that there are more existing issues that could be highlighted. However, we are not the first country to face with such issues. In fact, similar issues have already been identified and addressed in developed countries. The general strategy to resolve these issues is the promotion of interaction between industry and academia. At present, the academia has a partnership with the industry mainly for securing the industrial placements for the undergraduates. In addition, industry personnel have also rendered the visiting lecturing service to the academia.
Industry persons have also offered their service for supervision and evaluation of students projects. Such collaborations have been immensely beneficial to maintain the standards of our degree programs. As academics, we appreciate the service rendered by the industry and hope to continue close ties to strengthen the research culture in the country. The Government has also given special annual grants for promoting research and developments is seven selected state universities, which are to be upgraded to the international level. This money can be effectively used to develop infrastructure related to research work.
Sponsorships for MPhil/PhD programs
In general, the minimum duration for the completion of a full time PhD degree program is three years. The registration fee costs nearly Rs. 300,000 and the monthly stipend needed by the student to cover the expenses would be around Rs. 35,000.
In addition, a PhD student may require a grant of Rs. 200,000 for attending conferences and publishing research papers.
The duration for completion of a fulltime MPhil degree is two years, and the registration costs nearly Rs. 200,000. The other expenses are almost the same for the PhD and MPhil degree programs.
At present, a limited number of fulltime local PhDs is sponsored by Government institutions such as the National Science Foundation and National Research Council.
In this scenario, sponsoring of full time PhDs either in partially or fully by the software industry can be beneficial to the academia and the industry. It is generally possible to introduce a PhD project to solve a problem, which has a relevance to the particular software company. As such, this proposal can produce a person with doctoral qualifications while giving the benefits to both the academia and the industry.
Although some students can afford to bear the registration fees for a fulltime PhD program they look for sponsorships to cover the monthly expenses. Therefore, if some software companies just sponsor the monthly stipend (e.g. Rs. 35,000) for PhD students, it's a significant contribution to strengthen academia and the industry. Therefore, if the proposal works, there will be a visible increase of the number of students registered for full time PhDs in the seven state universities that are to be developed as international universities.
As noted earlier, computing graduates prefer to be employed in the software industry than in the academia. This is mainly due to the lucrative financial benefits offered by the industry. In contrast, many graduates are unaware of ample career prospects available in the academia.
However, we cannot ignore that fact that some graduates may have financial needs at the time of their graduation. As I feel, this problem can be easily addressed.
The solution is nothing but software companies could introduce a top up allowance to bridge the gap between the initial salary offered by the industry and the academia for computing graduates. This allowance may be Rs, 15,000 per month.
The duration for this type of sponsorship can be restricted to one or two years because probationary lecturers are supposed to go for acquiring postgraduate qualifications as quickly as possible.
This will be an effective solution to absorb computing graduates into academia. This is of course an investment, as a single computing academia can produce a large number of computing graduates annually.
The industry can offer such a top up allowance by introducing an obligation to the person who joined the academia. For instance, an obligation may be to conduct several short term projects which have a relevance to the respective company.
Those projects could be introduced as undergraduate projects which can be supervised (may be jointly with industry personnel) by the staff member who receives the top up allowance.
Allowance during Sabbatical leave
Most of the computing departments in the state university system suffer from inadequacy of edqualified staff to undertake teaching and research. One solution for this issue is to render short term (e.g one- year) consultancy service by the expert academics for the computing departments. In this connection, an expert academic in certain area has the opportunity to spend his/her sabbatical leave to promote teaching and research in a computing department in one of the state universities.
Although academics wish to spend their sabbatical leave abroad for updating themselves, some still prefer to spend sabbatical leave locally due to personal reasons. In fact, rendering experts services has not been confined to under developed departments, but to well established departments as well.
However, if an academic decides to spend his/her sabbatical leave within our own university system, the maximum payment by the host university is limited to the basic salary (without allowances) of the academic. This is rather discouraging and will hinder the use of available expertise for the development of the state universities.
To enable the effective use of the expertise, industry should be encouraged to sponsor a top up allowance (e.g. Thrice the basic salary) for the academics who spend their sabbatical leave within the state university system. As a benefit for the sponsoring company the expert spends his/her sabbatical at the host university on a project that is relevant to the particular company.
Spending Sabbatical leave in the industry
Encouraging the academics to spend their Sabbatical leave in the industry would be an excellent way to build the industry-academia partnerships. The salary paid is the sponsorship given by the industry to academic. Academics spending their sabbatical in a chosen industry have been a common practice in developed countries.
This process allows sharing of expertise and working on joint projects of mutual interests.
Exposing academics to the industry allows them to become aware of how the theories taught at universities are being practised, which is in turn essential to discovery of new knowledge.
Experiencing the issues in its operational environment is of utmost importance for the development of research ideas. Encouraging academics to spend their Sabbatical in the industry appears to be the most effective way to promote industry-academia partnerships. Undoubtedly, this suggestion should get precedence over the others.
Industry sponsored research
The concept of industry sponsored research projects is rather different from what we noted earlier. This may also have different connotations. Some key characteristics of these partnerships are highlighted here.
In industry sponsored research the industry and the academia should pump a significant amount of resources for the project. The project is generally interested to both parties. This type of project may include several resource persons, laboratories, equipment and some MPhil/PhD programs. In general, the ownership of the products created by the industry sponsored projects goes to the academia and the industry.
However, there can be different models for sharing ownership and commercialised benefits. Industry sponsored projects may also be relatively long term. They also give more benefits to both parties. Such collaborations are established after signing a MoU between the industry and the academia. Industry sponsored projects and research laboratories are not new concepts for some of the Sri Lankan universities.
Presenting research papers at international conference is an integral part of research training given to MPhil/PhD students. However, this has been seriously affected by lack of funding for attending conferences, which generally incurs cost for airfare, accommodation and conference registration. This is yet another vital requirement which can be sponsored by the industry.
Even one such sponsorship for a research student for the entire duration of the research degree program would still be a great support.
In some cases, it may also be a partial sponsorship. Sponsorships for attending conferences would not be that much costly as compared with other proposal for sponsorships.
On the other hand, since a presentation at an international conference leads to an international publication, this particular sponsorship directly contributes to improve the research profile of the university where the research has been conducted. Consequently, it improves the images and university rating in reputational surveys.
Sponsorships for research conferences
In our state university systems, all faculties and schools offering computing degree programs now organise some annual research conferences or academic sessions. At these sessions students get a training to present their research work and to ensure publications. These publications are not limited to academia-based projects, and also target for solution to the industry problems. At present these sessions are organised on a very small scale due to financial constraints. It is proposed to introduce some industry sponsorships for organising such session.
This funding can be used not only for conference logistic handling but also for sponsoring participation of world-renowned persons to chair the technical session and deliver keynote speeches on hot topics at the conference. Ideas from great mind always set the trends in academia and the industry.
The concept of endowment professorships has been in the academia for long time. This has already been practised in some departments in the university system.
However, this is not the case for the field of computing at present. The endowment professorship offers a higher salary for rendering service of an expert in the capacity of a professor.
If the payment is attractive, we will be able to attract foreign experts and expatriates as endowment professors for the developments in teaching and research in academia.
Apart from the endowment professorships, our university system has an option of recruiting visiting professors through the money available in unused cadre positions. However, this option is constrained by the UGC approved salary scale for a professor. As such, industry sponsorships for a top up allowance to cover airfare and additional payment for such appointments would be highly commendable.
This article attempts to shed light on issues faced by the academia and the IT industry and their impact on national development. To mitigate this problem several proposals have been presented to enrich the relationship between the industry and academia. Interested parties are invited to share their thoughts to drive this initiative.
I also acknowledge the invaluable comments and engagements given to me by the peers in compiling this article.