Universities — engines of societal transformation

Senior lecturer, Faculty of Business & Law, Taylor’s Business School. Taylor’s Business School is the leading private business school in Malaysia, based on the QS Subject Ranking 2021 edition.

Senior lecturer, Faculty of Business & Law, Taylor’s Business School. Taylor’s Business School is the leading private business school in Malaysia, based on the QS Subject Ranking 2021 edition.

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Universities, also known as institutions of higher education, play an important role in furthering education, research, training, scientific breakthroughs and new technology development within our society. We know that each qualification serves a different purpose — undergraduate programmes equip students with discipline and specific knowledge to join the next-generation workforce; master’s degrees further their knowledge for higher-level positions, career advancements or a career switch; and doctoral programmes train the next batch of academicians, researchers and consultants in their respective fields.

Researchers produce new knowledge through their research findings and contribute to both future research direction and managerial implications for companies. The universities’ heavy investments in research and development (R&D) also contribute to many of the new technological developments that change the way we live.

The debate on the role of universities in society has been going on for the past two decades. Arguments mainly revolve around whether institutions of higher education should still uphold their status as temples of knowledge, carrying out research activities and disseminating knowledge through publications and teaching, or contribute to society through industry linkages and collaboration for a more societal impact, such as technology and economic development.

In the last decade, we have seen an increasing number of partnerships between universities and industry for the benefit of innovation and the next generation of graduates entering the workforce. Notably, R&D projects between a university and willing companies are designing new products, where the university provides the lab, know-how and technology while the company supplies a wealth of knowledge from an industry perspective. Such forms of collaboration have gained attention and support from governments around the world, like the Newton Fund, which seeks to build research and innovation partnerships between universities and industry in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Malaysia, support from the government can be seen through research grants such as Mygrant, which require some form of collaboration between academicians and industry, where the output is expected to have societal impact.

In the social sciences, partnerships between universities and industry have helped turn the predominantly blue-sky research into real-world applications. In the past, management research findings often came from academicians who have never stepped out of their offices to see the real world, but did their research based on statistical analysis. There was a gap between the academicians’ novel theoretical findings and their applicability in the real world. With corporations now being more willing to open their doors for researchers to do field study, research findings are thus closer to reality and more applicable to the business world.

Another example of collaborations between universities and industry is in internship placement — a win-win situation where students complement their studies with practical knowledge and companies receive talents who can potentially turn into permanent employees in the future. As globalisation prevails, universities compete internationally for the best talents, and international students being placed for internships bring an international network and cultural diversity to the company. As the debate continues, the lingering question remains: What other roles can universities play in society?

Indeed, universities can do much more than internship placements and commercialisation of projects. Apart from the know-how of a specific field, academicians have a wide international network that is often leveraged for research projects. From a local perspective, Taylor’s University is moving towards the notion of being an “entrepreneurial university”, in finding new avenues of engaging industry and gaining societal impact.

One of the more recent initiatives is Taylor’s Business School’s founding of the Family Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Hub, aiming to serve the community of family businesses in Asia. The Hub also collaborates with Family Business Network Asia in outreach and engaging with business families in the region. Our aim is to provide more “consumable” knowledge to the community in helping the family firms and family small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in overcoming their challenges, as well as achieving sustainability. We also seek to function as a platform that connects and facilitates sharing and peer learning for family businesses.

Another initiative to accompany the Hub is the Taylor’s University Sustainability Hub, in collaboration with the UN Global Compact Network Malaysia and Brunei. The Sustainability Hub endeavours to develop business solutions, training and activities that guide businesses and SMEs in incorporating sustainable development goals into their businesses. The Hub also seeks to further integrate research and practice of business sustainability towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals in providing knowledge for the public to cultivate more awareness of sustainability.

The Covid-19 pandemic and growing impact of climate change amplify the need to incorporate sustainable actions for business resilience and sustainability. With the quest to contribute to society with greater impact, the Family Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Hub and the Sustainability Hub strive to drive sustainability — be it from an internal perspective of family succession or environmental sustainability. It is an important milestone for us as such industry engagement allows academicians to have more real-world exposure while utilising our knowledge in guiding family firms and SMEs to ensure sustainability.