Universities and industry closer than ever on campus technology parks

Post-secondary institutions across Canada have long made it their business to be connected to the needs and future plans of the private sector. After all, a great number of graduates from universities and colleges across the country will work for the private sector, so these institutions need to know what tomorrow’s employers need from graduates.

Some universities, like the University of Waterloo, have taken the next step in connecting business to education. Waterloo is one of 25 university campus-based or affiliated research parks across the country. Companies lease space from the university, and not only do they get competitive real estate prices, but they are in a position to connect with future prospective employees and other businesses involved in research who share these parks.

The Globe and Mail’s Chris Atchison spoke to some key players at Waterloo’s Research and Technology Park, including Terry Stepien, president of Sybase iAnywhere and satisfied tenant:

Tenants at parks such as Waterloo’s can easily tap the school’s world-renowned co-op program, plucking students out of university to save recruiting costs.

“About 95 per cent of our development team in Waterloo are University of Waterloo graduates,” Mr. Stepien says of the roughly 120 co-op students accepted by his 350-person firm each year.

Then there’s access to cutting-edge research. Sybase’s staffers regularly attend university-programmed seminars and work with researchers from the school.

Another benefit lies in the very community that a research park creates and nurtures. Mr. Stepien points out that with RIM and Open Text on Sybase’s doorstep, new business opportunities are constantly emerging.

Another example of parks like this is the University of Victoria’s Vancouver Island Technology Park. Big companies like Cisco Systems play on the same level as smaller companies like Avocet 3D and Boardwalk Communications, and all benefit from the research and human resources provided by the University of Victoria.

While it’s great that industry is benefitting from the services provided by the universities at these technology parks and even better that recent grads have opportunities for co-op postings and potentially jobs in the future,  the question deserves to be asked: does having industry and education so intertwined undermine the university as an independent entity? Is it possible that the influence of private sector corporations unduly influences what will be taught in post-secondary school, or do they provide valuable foresight to future grads about the real world?

If you ask me, this is a question that all universities considering one of these parks ought to ask themselves. It’s one thing to be aware of what the future of the private sector will be, but it’s another to have every whim and demand of tenants reflected in coursework. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, and universities should examine this on a case-by-case basis.

Any thoughts on joint university-industry plans like these, Techvibes readers? Is industry providing guidance to students, or are they undermining the independence of the Ivory Tower? Sound off in the comments section!