Employers often complain that they do not get industry-fit skilled manpower even from the top universities of the country. That there is a gap between academia and the industries has been acknowledged by many from both sides.
A recent study by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) found that the industrial sectors of the country are experiencing a 30% skills gap. Among them, agro-food processing and RMG sectors are facing a relatively moderate skills gap. But the gap is higher in ICT, ship-building and the large-scale electronics sectors.
The study reveals that only 3.65% of the labour force in Bangladesh receives training each year, but the rate is only 1.35% in 10 specific sectors.
Some recent developments seem to be expediting the bridging of this gap.
Earlier this year, tech giant Huawei and Bangladesh University of Science and Technology (Buet) jointly launched a non-profit education programme – Huawei-Buet ICT Academy – to equip young learners with industry-fit skills and develop an ICT talent ecosystem.
The academy is offering dozens of certification programmes on different subjects such as routing and switching, 5G, storage, artificial intelligence, intelligent computing, cloud computing, security, WLAN, and big data. At the end of the course, students will be given three types of grade certificates – associate, professional and expert – based on their achievements.
The course and certification will be coordinated by Huawei Authorised Information and Network Academy.
More recently, Brac University has struck a deal with BSRM, a leading steel manufacturing company in the country, under which the company will provide funds to enable Brac University's School of Engineering to recruit world-class faculty, conduct cutting-edge research in key impact areas and promote curriculum innovation.
The university even renamed its engineering school the BSRM School of Engineering.
Also early this year, the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Dhaka University and Janata Jute Mills, a subsidiary of Akij Group, have taken a joint initiative to carry out research on the method of jute retting with a view to making it suitable for cultivation twice a year and thus increase production.
Although we've seen several deals be struck between academia and the industry this year, this is not entirely new in the country.
Global electronics brand Samsung funded two labs - Samsung Innovation Lab and Applied Machine Learning Lab - in Buet during the period of 2013-2019.
"Under the collaboration with Samsung Research Bangladesh, the funding was used to develop research labs where our full-time graduate researchers worked on some problems of mutual interest," Dr Anindya Iqbal, professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Buet, told The Business Standard.
Despite the recent funding pouring in from the businesses, the professor says industry-academia collaboration is rare in Bangladesh.
"There are hardly any industry-academia collaborations in the country in the truest sense. The existing initiatives are more of CSR because in real terms such collaboration means the industry will give academia a problem, and provide funds to find a solution to that. Academics and full-time researchers will be involved in the process," said Dr Iqbal, the primary investigator of a project titled 'Code Review Quality Measurement,' implemented under the Samsung collaboration.
"We have another lab at Buet which was funded and renovated by a local IT firm, Tiger IT. But they did not give us an industry problem to research. Likewise, Kazi Farms will build a convention centre here, but we don't call it industry-academia collaboration. Kazi Farms' founder and MD is a Buet alumnus, and he is doing it out of his good wishes for the university, or as a part of CSR. We also get funding from local companies for our various conferences. These are not real industry-academia collaborations," the professor elaborated.
The businesses we talked to said they are funding the academia for no direct benefit.
"Huawei doesn't get any benefit from this project. It's a part of our youth development initiative. ICT Academy is not the only one; we're also running another programme called Seeds for the Future since 2014, just finished a programme titled ICT Incubator in which we awarded local startups seed money to implement their ideas. There are some other programmes as well," Tanvir Ahmed, head of media, Huawei Technologies Bangladesh, told TBS.
Huawei wants the youth to know more about newer technologies and become more skilled with these, the Huawei official said. With this in mind, Huawei took up a global project titled 'Huawei ICT Academy' which is a partnership between Huawei and academies around the world. The conglomerate has also struck similar deals in Bangladesh, with five universities including Buet.
"Some studies show that within 6-7 years, there will be a shortage of workforce with ICT skills. Our goal is to prepare our youth to fill in that gap," said Tanvir Ahmed.
"Huawei globally employs 2 lakh people; 1 lakh of them are engaged in research and development. Last year, we spent more than 22% of our revenue on R&D. We've been doing this for the last 30 years, and we want to share the knowledge and experience with the university graduates. Huawei believes in collaborative development, and collaboration with academia is an important part," Tanvir added.
Since Huawei does not directly benefit from these programmes, is it a part of their CSR? Tanvir says Huawei does not claim it as CSR, although it looks like it.
Traditionally, universities focused more on theories, while the industry developed products and services for profit. In the case of science and engineering, it is easier to see the potential of collaboration which would help both — the industry and academia. No wonder, the collaboration between the two is on the rise globally.
Boeing, one of the world's top manufacturers of commercial aeroplanes, defence, space and security systems, has overarching, long-term research agreements with some of the world's top research universities in specific critical technology areas.
Procter and Gamble (P&G), the world's largest consumer goods company, works with the University of Cincinnati (UC) as a strategic academic partner to develop modelling and simulation capabilities for advancing product and process development.
The world's top-ranking universities attract a lot of industry funding. According to studies, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the biggest investors in academia. The IT industry is also increasingly engaging in universities, as innovations are beneficial to both.
Academics across the institutions acknowledge the gap between academia and industry and say there are multiple ways to bridge that. Internships are one good example of collaboration.
"Academia and the industry are co-dependent, yet there is a basic gap. Only after entering the job market do people realise a lot of things they learned are of no use at their jobs, and in fact, they didn't learn many things they actually needed to know. Teachers need to know from the industry what their students need to know," said Dr Sutapa Bhattacharjee, professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka.
"IBA is closely linked with the industry. And that is why organisations like to hire IBA graduates. We send our students to organisations, and through their assignments, they learn how organisations work, how theories work, where the gap is and how to minimise it. Through this process, they also learn to blend their practical knowledge with theoretical knowledge," added Dr Bhattacharjee.
According to the professor, regular market visits, industry visits and industrialist teaching classes can be really helpful in bridging the gap.