Wits appeals for intensified construction industry, academia alliance

11 February 2014

Fundamental to the evolution and development of South Africa’s engineering and construction industry is the ability of the industry and academia to develop meaningful and lasting partnerships, as well as the degree to which these collaborations incite the transfer of existing knowledge and innovation, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib asserts.

“It remains [vital] that we have national and international higher education and industry partnerships, because, if the university system dies, then, [ultimately], so will industry,” he said at the eighth Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) Postgraduate Conference at Wits on Monday.
Habib, a political scientist and author, held that industry could not always position itself to be at “the cutting edge of new ideas”, owing to the pressures of sustaining a profitable enterprise.

“[Innovation] is a process that needs to be subsidised and, as universities and higher education facilities are subsidised, they can be perfect partners [to engineering and construction] companies in this sense,” he commented.
Habib further noted that, for “too long” a divide had existed between the industrial sector and educational systems.

“It’s a silly divide because we both fundamentally lose out. Industry needs to be renewed by constantly [developing] new ideas, while academics need to be able to test ideas around construction that advance inclusion.

“For too long, our construction industry has been a product of our politics, resulting in the construction of an urban landscape that is particularly exclusionary. We’ve inherited a divide,” he said.

Habib further iterated the importance of establishing international partnerships and exchanging construction-related ideas across borders, stating that Wits would soon start to move “heavily” into postgraduate research, creating a platform for a new generation of construction industry researchers focused on local and international collaboration.

“Moreover, we need to realise that being globally competitive doesn’t mean the imitation of [international concepts]. Wits will never be a successful university if it only [regurgitates international] ideas and applies them to the local context,” he noted.

CIDB CEO Mzwandile Sokupa added at the conference that the board was highly conscious of the debate around intensifying industry and academic partnerships, noting that it was an issue that it was “monitoring closely”.
“Our objective is to enhance [the] quality [of] education and research, and we are aware that our challenge also [involves making] academia attractive and [preventing] students from leaving university [before graduating] to enter the workplace,” he said.

UK-based University of Reading construction management and economics Professor Will Hughes suggested that the inherent disconnect between industry and academia lay in the manner in which academics and researchers were “obscure” in the presentation of their research and ideas.

He further noted that a “huge” problem at the interface of academia and industry was an issue of communication, as well as the fact that practitioners were [seldom] interested in the construction and engineering problems identified by academics.

“Not everything academia does is relevant to industry and practitioners, as construction professionals want answers rather than questions, while academics prefer it the other way around. If you write up your research and nobody understands it, it’s a waste of time,” Hughes pointed out.
Therefore, it was critically important that universities taught practical problem-solving techniques, he noted.

Citing examples of industry and university collaboration, Hughes said these could involve co-funded research projects, collaborative proposals to research councils, student placements and guest lectures, access to case study material for academic staff and students, as well as involvement in seminars and workshops.

In addition, companies could sponsor lectures or professorships, become members of university advisory boards – which inform syllabus development – hold career fairs, embark on graduate recruitment and provide scholarships and bursaries.

“There are many ways in which the built environment research community may contribute to the construction sector and the wider academic community, but the barriers to the effective exchange of ideas could be reduced if we focused more seriously on them,” Hughes commented.
By: Natalie Greve

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