Published on 2012/07/23

Higher Education Institutions and Corporations: a Diverse Relationship

While educational institutions must serve the best interests of their faculty, students and communities, partnerships with businesses can strengthen workforces, communities and society. Photo by O5Com.

I believe colleges and universities will forge stronger relationships with corporations and businesses in order to survive and ensure employment opportunities for their graduates. Some global corporations now boast economies larger than that of most countries. They have the money to fund the growth and sustenance of our educational institutions, both public and private.

These relationships will take on many different forms. There is already a well-developed model between corporations and research universities. This keeps the pipeline of innovation full while providing for the transfer of new technology and breakthroughs to corporate funders for commercialization. As long as research universities benefit over the long-term from the royalties and profits there is a very real partnership in which both sides benefit. The best minds are given the resources to solve very real problems and the results of their work, when introduced to the market, produce continuous income streams. Both sides of the partnership win.

Another kind of relationship that is evolving is collaborations whose primary goal is to educate older workers in new technology and specialized skills the corporate partner needs. The corporate partner gets ready-to-go employees who are trained to fill very specific jobs. Often local and state governments co-fund these partnerships to encourage job creation and economic development. The college or university becomes the training department for the corporation, saving the company thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, in training costs.

The educational institution gets much needed funding, instructors and professors get jobs teaching, and students are more likely to be hired by the company upon completing their certification or degree program. In some cases, the students are already employees and receive the training to improve their skills and productivity.

But the model has some serious drawbacks. At the community college level, for example, the majority of the faculty employed for these programs are adjunct or part-time. They get no benefits, no tenure and are paid far less than their full-time colleagues. Often they are experts in their field, but they are not professional educators. They do not know how to develop and deliver lesson plans, evaluate student progress and give actionable feedback. Students are trained to work for one company. The skills they learn may not transfer easily to another company or field. If the company leaves town or downsizes, the program could be gone, overnight.

There is also a philanthropic drive to ensure that high school and college graduates are career-ready. Many corporations and their foundations are funding “Cradle to Career” programs, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs, as well as literacy and school transformation to improve kindergarten readiness, interest in and proficiency in subjects that lead to high tech jobs, improve graduation rates and support local economic development.

Whether or not these programs will be sufficiently funded and practically supported to produce the desired result is still unknown.

While I think public private partnerships for educational institutions can be valuable and have the potential to produce some outstanding results, my biggest fear is that higher education will become nothing more than high level vocational training providers for specific jobs, industries and companies.

The love of learning for the sake of learning is also very important. I believe that flexibility and the ability to learn throughout one’s life is very important. A rich liberal arts education provides the foundation for that kind of learning. Some of the technologies that we have today will be obsolete before we know it. I believe that education must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Educational institutions cannot exist to serve corporate interests alone. They must serve the best interests of their faculty and employees, students, communities and society as a whole.

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