This post has been contributed by Dr Jennifer Dickfos, a senior lecturer in the Griffith Business School and a member of the Law Futures Centre
It is common for Australian universities to maintain a suite of programs which seek to further develop the relationship between universities and their industry partners with the intention of explicitly partnering academic and industry expertise. For example, Griffith University’s suite of programs includes:
- Executive in Residence
- Work Integrated Learning
- YUNUS Social Business Centre
- Strategic Advisory Board Memberships
- Innovation & Entrepreneurship Series
Among the intended beneficiaries of such partnerships are academic staff whose expanded industry knowledge and industry networks provide capacity to co-produce high impact research, co-create with industry partners authentic assessment items and a curriculum reflective of current industry practice. Students’ learning experiences are in turn heightened through exposure to the academic’s professional expertise. Without such industry partnering opportunities as these programs provide, academics who have transitioned from a PhD student to an academic staff member would have little to no knowledge of industry practice.
Little to no understanding of industry practice may be problematic when academics are seeking empirical research and access to data. Thus, the common advantage of the above programs is their ability to bridge teaching, research, and industry experience for the mutual advantage of the university, its industry partners, academic staff, and students.
However, recent changes to Australian federal government funding of universities have necessitated additional measures to increase collaboration between universities and their industry partners. The introduction of the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund (NPILF) under the previous Australian government’s Job Ready Graduates Package seeks to incentivise increased engagement between universities and industry, with the intention that creating ‘university-industry partnerships’ and collaboration across teaching, learning and research is critical to ensuring graduates leave the higher education system with the skills and experience they need to both succeed in and shape the workforce. Such incentives are seen as necessary as Australian businesses have poor rates of collaboration with higher education. This may be reflective of Australia’s business landscape being composed of 97% small businesses or family enterprises as reported in the Australian small business and family enterprise report for 2022. Such enterprises have less capacity to engage with universities as their owners are time poor, given the multiple management and operational roles they perform within their businesses.
In the United Kingdom, the employment of pracademics has been identified and documented by Jill Dickinson, Andrew Fowler, and Teri-Lisa Griffiths, in their publication, ‘Pracademics? Exploring transitions and professional identities in higher education’ as one measure by which Higher Education Institutions may facilitate these university -industry partnerships.
Abinash Panda in the article, ‘Bringing academic and corporate worlds closer: We need pracademics’ described a pracademic as a dually recognized expert in academic and professional practice. In describing pracademic careers Paul Posner, in his article ‘The Pracademic: An Agenda for Re-engaging Practitioners and Academics contemplated a continuum whereby pracademics transition across both sectors of academia and practice for a temporary period or a more permanent conversion. Within the Pracademic Experience Pilot Program, academics transition to practitioners temporarily, contrary to the more traditional role transition of practitioner to academic, on a more permanent basis. This blog defines a pracademic experience as an academic taking on the role of a practitioner and experiencing professional practice as part of their continuing professional development.
The successful implementation of the Pracademic Experience Pilot Program supports Griffith University’s Strategic Plan 2020 -2025 in a number of ways. Firstly, by offering ‘ better networking, mentoring and career development opportunities’ for staff (Griffith University’s Research Plan 2021 – 2025, 8). Secondly, by providing ‘opportunities for early career and mid-career staff to develop their industry links and partnerships with high value stakeholders’ (Griffith University’s Research Plan 2021 – 2025,14). Thirdly, by engaging for impact nationally through ‘partnerships with employers and entrepreneurs to ensure that our curriculum meets the needs of the workforce, and that our teaching is enriched by regular engagement with employers’ (Griffith University Strategic Plan 2020-2025, 14). At the same time, the PEPP also supports Griffith University’s Academic Plan 2021-2025 to ‘partner with students and employers to design industry-relevant and professional degrees that prepare students well for future employment’ (Griffith University’s Academic Plan 2021-2025, 3).
Given the Australian Government’s and Griffith University’s focus on creating university-industry partnerships there is increased urgency to determine the strategic viability of the Pracademic Experience Pilot Program, not only as a means of establishing and maintaining collaborative research partnerships between industry partners and university academic staff, but also providing continuing professional development to academic staff through placements with industry partners, during a period of study leave. For the program to be viable, the strategic value of academics and industry partners participating in a pracademic experience must outweigh the strategic risks, associated with running the program.
Strategic Opportunities and Risks of the PEPP
The PEPP as a Strategic Opportunity
Emma Powell, Georgina Winfield, Alycia Schatteman, and Kelly Trusty identify in their article, ‘Collaboration between practitioners and academics: Defining the pracademic experience’ the chief benefit of offering pracademic experiences to academic staff is the increased opportunities for collaboration between industry partners and academics engaged in research or teaching. The same authors also recognise such collaboration may be self-perpetuating resulting in consulting, research and technology transfers between the academic’s university and industry partners.
In ‘Spanning the HRD academic-practitioner divide–bridging the gap through Mode 2 research’ David Gray, Paul Iles and Sandra Watson, acknowledge that Academic staff engaging in a pracademic experience, as part of their continuing professional development, can engage in pragmatic research with an industry partner, which is both academically rigorous and practically relevant. There is also the opportunity for academic staff to further inform their teaching practice, and address gaps in the curriculum as outlined by Brenda Bushouse, Willow Jacobsen, Kristina Lambright, Jared Lorens, Ricardo Morse, and Ora-orn Poochoen in Crossing the divide: Building bridges between public administration practitioners and scholars, especially in circumstances where the academic staff have been recruited directly from PhD studies with no previous practice-base knowledge or understanding as determined in ‘Spanning the HRD academic-practitioner divide–bridging the gap through Mode 2 research’ by Gray et al.
The literature also provides insights regarding the failure of academics and industry partners to successfully collaborate via a pracademic experience.
Strategic Risks of the PEPP
The chief strategic risk in offering pracademic placements to academic staff with industry partners is the potential imbalances in the supply of industry partner placements and academic demand for pracademic experiences. Such imbalances may occur for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there are the stereotypical views of academics that perceive the small or medium enterprise sector as incapable of generating ‘cutting edge’ research and in turn, the perception of industry partners that universities are ‘ivory towers and academics are detached from the real world’ both identified by Nigel Lockett, Ron Kerr, & Sarah Robinson in ‘Multiple perspectives on the challenges for knowledge transfer between higher education institutions and industry’ .
A second cause identified by Gray et al., in ‘Spanning the HRD academic-practitioner divide–bridging the gap through Mode 2 research’ is that ‘academics and businesses work to different timescales, the academics looking to projects that continue over several years, whereas companies seek immediate results.’
The current university staff development incentive schemes which promote academic research and favour the use of journal rankings and citation metrics, may as suggested by Gray et al., do little to encourage academics to engage in a pracademic experience and participate in practice-based research unless the research can lead to publications, provides a third barrier, with the lack of identified suitable metrics to measure the impact of practice – based research presenting a fourth barrier.
These barriers may however be minimised, with the consequence that the chief strategic risk is mitigated. The stereotypical views of small or medium enterprises as research graveyards and academics siloed in their ivory towers may be diminished by encouraging a cultural shift and offering new incentives to engage in practitioner research. The ‘promotion of practice – based professors, ranking of practice – based journals, the sustained funding for scholarly engagement with practice’ outlined by Gray et al., in ‘Spanning the HRD academic-practitioner divide–bridging the gap through Mode 2 research’ and the relatively new NPILF funding model are all means of encouraging universities to be more strategic with industry with respect to the offering and take – up of pracademic experiences by academic staff.
To address the disparity in timescale, and increase collaborations between practitioner and academic, Gray et al. recommends
- robust discussion and agreement on the research aims, objectives and questions;
- data collection access; and
- purpose – built and timely dissemination, via separate reports and presentations, to practitioners and academic audiences
The lack of motivation for academics to engage in practice – based research may be overcome through the greater priority being given to the ‘impact’ of research, meaning the effect of research outside the academy. Most Australian universities are now focusing on research impact, as a percentage of university funding is tied to the research impact metric.
The Australian Research Council 2012 adopts a very broad definition of research impact. ‘Research impact is the contribution that research makes to the economy, society, environment or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research.’ In accord with this definition of research impact, the Australian Research Council’s Impact Pathway identifies research impact as any beneficial change in terms of economics, health, social, cultural, environmental, national security, quality of life and public policy or services; higher quality workforce; job creation and risk reduction in decision making.
Evidence of the Strategic Value of the PEPP
The Pilot Study – Purpose
The purpose of the pilot study was to gather data to establish and match the expectations of both academics and industry partners with the objectives of determining the level of shared mutual demand for a pracademic experience and to form potential pracademic partnerships.
The Pilot Study – Methodology
The strategic value to be derived from the Pracademic Experience Pilot Program is dependent upon the level of interest of academic staff and industry partners to jointly participate in a pracademic experience. To gauge this level of interest a pilot study was conducted of Griffith Business School academic staff and small to medium industry partners, located in the Logan and Gold Coast regions.
In addition to the pilot study survey, pre and post pracademic interviews of a pracademic who completed their pracademic experience in 2021 and a post pracademic interview of their industry partner, complement the pilot study survey by providing further insights into the respective benefits and risks of a pracademic experience, not necessarily identified in the pilot study or the literature.
A qualitative survey consisting of an academic questionnaire and an industry partner questionnaire was chosen as part of the research methodology. Each questionnaire was deployed at the same time. Both the academic and industry partner questionnaires were divided into 3 parts and contained the following:
Part 1 – Demographic information of Industry partner and Academic respectively
Part 2 – Purpose and Boundaries of the Pracademic Experience
Part 3 –Deliverables of the Pracademic Experience.
Demographic information was restricted to the name and contact details of the industry partner. However, academic staff members were asked to provide their name, contact details, academic qualifications, their discipline, eligibility for study leave and any existing industry contacts they were willing to disclose.
Responses to questions in part 2 and part 3 were used to match academics to industry partners. Key questions used in this matching process were: each party’s objectives for participating in the pracademic experience; the skill set of the pracademic and the skills required by the industry partner; the duration of the pracademic experience, including a time line of work to be completed by the pracademic and industry partner; deliverable outcomes for both the industry partner and pracademic; as well as any restrictions imposed on the creation and ownership of intellectual property or dissemination of results in terms of confidentiality of information.
Discussion of Results
Despite follow up requests via email with industry partners and academics, the principal difficulty in determining the level of demand for pracademics by industry partners and enough pracademics to fill such demand, was the failure of both parties to fully complete the questionnaires. Without full details, accurately matching academics seeking a pracademic experience with industry partners is problematic.
One possible solution is to replace both questionnaires with an initial expression of interest form which could then be followed by an in-person or online interview where the questions can be drawn from the existing questionnaires, but also customised to the specific industry partner or academic staff member.
Another means of ensuring adequate numbers of both pracademic staff and industry partners for placement purposes, is to encourage pracademic staff members to seek out potential industry partners through their own networks. The names of additional industry partners willing to participate in a pracademic experience may then be added to the Pracademic Experience Program data base to accommodate existing and future placements.
Of the four matches which were ultimately made only one academic staff member has completed their pracademic experience using approved study leave to date. The remaining three matches have not yet proceeded to a pracademic experience due to the delay caused by Covid -19 restrictions, ineligibility of the academic staff member for approved study leave and the disengagement of one industry partner.
Challenges, Risks and Outcomes – The Evidence
Case Study- Purpose
Further useful insights were gained from the author interviewing the academic staff member who succeeded in completing his pracademic experience with his industry partner. Two interviews were conducted with the academic: one pre and one post his pracademic experience. A single interview, post the pracademic experience, was also held with the pracademic’s industry partner.
Case Study -Methodology
To complement the pilot study survey, a descriptive case study as used by Robert Yin in Case study research design and applications: designs and methods was chosen. Pamela Baxter and Susan Jack in their report Qualitative Case Study Methodology: Study Design and Implementation for Novice Researchers consider this research methodology to be an informative source of professional practice and evidence-based decision -making. The participants in the case study were the pracademic who completed his pracademic experience during a period of study leave in 2021, his industry partner, an Australian federal statutory agency, and the pracademic’s home university.
Case Study – Key insights
Challenges -Timetabling the Pracademic Experience
Timetabling of the pracademic experience during the study leave period needs to be flexible as it may not be initially evident what is the most efficacious amount of time to spend with the industry partner. Originally, the pracademic suggested to the industry partner that the duration of the pracademic experience would be intensive: five days a week for one calendar month. However, after ongoing discussions with the industry partner, delays in obtaining resources, and accessing infrastructure, it became evident that a longer duration would be more beneficial to all stakeholders: for the pracademic and industry partner’s personnel to become familiarised with one another’s expertise and for the pracademic to experience the industry partner’s life cycle of business events. The decision was made to restructure the duration of the pracademic experience to four months on a part-time basis of three days per week.
Challenges – Connecting with an Industry Partner
If a pracademic has one or more network contacts working for the Industry Partner this can be most useful, especially in a large organisation, where assistance is needed in setting up interviews with relevant personnel or providing confirmation of the pracademic’s abilities and expertise. Without such contacts, a pracademic must be proactive in targeting potential industry partners by attending and participating in industry conferences, or by seeking out mentoring opportunities via professional associations, or connecting with industry representatives on university advisory boards. Once an industry partner is agreed upon, a pracademic must pitch their proposal of a pracademic experience. To succeed a pracademic must be able to articulate how their research skills can add value to the industry partner’s business. Where a pracademic is an early career researcher with little experience of industry, he or she may benefit from researching an industry partner’s particular challenges or pain points or identify potential new products or markets to amplify the industry partner’s growth. Elevator pitch training in engaging with stakeholders and communicating the impact and value of their applied research would assist both early career researchers but also seasoned researchers unaccustomed to promoting the value of their expertise to industry.
The pracademic was most fortunate to have an 18- month close working relationship with one of the Industry Partner’s employees prior to seeking a pracademic experience with the same Industry Partner. Providing a three-page document to his contact at the Industry Partner, outlining his expertise and how it could be applied to several areas of interest to the Industry Partner, enabled the pracademic to make that initial connection with the Industry Partner.
Risks – Reputational Risk relying upon sabbatical leave
The purpose of the sabbatical program is to provide eligible academic staff with an opportunity to apply for time away from normal duties to conduct sustained activities to further their development as scholars, researchers, teachers and/or practitioners.
Due to the time lag between submission of the application, the specific dates and duration of the study program sought, as well as the time during which the Industry Partner requires assistance from the pracademic, utilizing the sabbatical program to undertake a pracademic experiences can be problematic. Industry Partners require definite timeframes to be adhered to. Whereas the decision to approve an application is made generally six months after applications have closed, leaving the academic and potentially the university with the reputational risk of committing to a pracademic experience which ultimately the pracademic cannot perform. This in turn may be perceived by the Industry Partner as an inability to adequately plan and execute a program of work.
The pracademic found himself in this situation when his original application for the sabbatical leave was rejected. Fortunately, he was able to successfully appeal the original decision and commit to the dates agreed to with the Industry Partner, although he was harangued for making semi-commitments with the industry partner when trying to establish a plan.
Outcomes – Collaborative Working Relationships
The most significant outcome of the pracademic’s experience is the collaborative working relationships made within his Industry Partner’s organisation. In prior years, despite repeated efforts to provide the names of Australian and New Zealand university researchers and their respective expertise to two Australian federal government agencies, such actions did not generate any collaborative research opportunities. However, during the pracademic placement, working on projects with a variety of personnel, the pracademic had the opportunity to inform personnel within the Industry Partner of not only his own research expertise, but also the relevant research of other colleagues. The pracademic is quietly optimistic that these collaborative working relationships will endure as three months after the conclusion of the pracademic experience the pracademic is still collaborating on projects with their Industry Partner.
Confirmation of the enduring nature of this collaborative working relationship can be found in the following response provided by the Industry Partner when asked ‘What were the outcomes of the pracademic experience for the Industry Partner?’
- New and useful ideas were discussed in a report from the pracademic to the Industry Partner.
- Industry partner staff gained experience working with the pracademic as well as an understanding of their perspectives and approaches to a problem.
- The pracademic gaining a greater understanding of the importance of communication style in ensuring engagement with their work.
- Anticipated outcome: Further public discussion through any academic papers and similar produced by the pracademic about matters (the) subject of their research during the pracademic experience.
(Industry Partner email response)
Outcomes – Communication styles and formats to capture different audiences
To capture different audiences and time frames, the Pracademic’s recommendations were communicated in a variety of styles and formats including: 137- page report; a six- page executive summary; a two- page flyer and a two-page infographic. The process of generating these various reports and formats was new and innovative to the pracademic. Rather than listing the reforms in what may be considered a blunt and contentious manner, the reforms were readily accessible, framed by a narrative, including case studies, so that readers are more receptive, the reforms succeed in being adopted and the report has impact.
This outcome was also confirmed by the Industry Partner who responded in a post pracademic interview when asked if there were any unexpected outcomes, ‘pracademic gaining a greater understanding of the importance of communication style in ensuring engagement with their work.’
Outcome – A more reflective pracademic
The Pracademic considered completing the pracademic experience as very beneficial to their mental and physical health. Looking at issues, but with a different lens or perspective, made the pracademic appreciate the wider implications of reform recommendations. Such implications may extend to understanding the practical implications of reforms such as staff changes or redundances, replacement of information technology systems or additional workload for existing staff. Appreciating these experiences has resulted in a more reflective pracademic.
Having discussed the strategic opportunities and risks provided by the Pracademic Experience Pilot Program, the following research limitations are acknowledged.
Limitations and Future Research
The primary limitations of this study include the small sample size for the online questionnaires, the preliminary nature of the evidence and the short-time frame of the analysis. However, given the objective of the research was to determine the strategic viability of a Pracademic Experience PilotProgram such limitations are not unexpected. Despite these limitations, the pilot program has indicated a mutual interest by academic staff members and industry partners to engage in pracademic experiences. The Pracademic Experience Pilot Program provides a strategic opportunity for the University to achieve its goals of enhancing student employability through industry-engaged programs and provide for the continuing professional development of Griffith academic staff while minimising the strategic risks of running such a program. Future longitudinal research by the author will determine the long – term sustainability of the Pracademic Experience Program and address the current study’s shortcomings.
Recommendations and Conclusions
The following recommendations are provided to maximise the strategic opportunities and minimise the strategic risks of the Pracademic Experience Pilot Program.
TABLE 3: Recommendations to mitigate or extinguish the PEPP’s strategic risks
|1||To increase the numbers of industry partners relative to pracademic staff, encourage pracademics to seek out potential industry partners from their own networks.|
|2||Where academic staff lack industry connections, encourage academic staff to attend industry conferences, suggest academic staff engage in mentoring opportunities via professional associations, or connect with industry representatives on University Advisory Boards.|
|3||Where academic staff lack confidence in engaging with industry partners formal training to be provided to increase academic staff ability to outline their expertise and how such expertise may be applied to areas of industry partner interest.|
|4||To ensure accurate matching of pracademics with industry partners, replace both questionnaires with an initial expression of interest (EOI) followed by an in – person / online interview customised to the interests of both pracademic and industry partner.|
|5||Consider flexible timetabling of the pracademic experience during non- teaching periods to accommodate the needs of all stakeholders.|
|6||To ensure the pracademic’s smooth integration into the industry partner’s daily work routine, the pracademic should attend an orientation day before commencement of the pracademic experience.|
Pending adoption of the above recommendations, it is considered that the Pracademic Experience Pilot Program is a viable means of achieving Griffith University’s strategic goal of creating university – industry partnerships.