If you were to ask a recent graduate how confident they are in their field, you might come across some responses indicating a rather low level. Many might express concerns that the current approach to academia is lackluster and disconnect from what industry is looking for. This can be especially prevalent in highly-specialized fields, such as water-related industries. It is in these fields that students and new hires enter needing to be taught much of the baseline information and competences, which takes up time and resources from the universities and companies.
AQUAdemia was launched as an initiative intended to combat this. The Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliance project has been developed and piloted in the consortium locations, Spain, Belgium, Austria, and the Netherlands, to help universities reinvent their curriculums to better fit industry needs. A system has been devised to combat this disconnect specifically with water-related industries. Their comprehensive and sustainable system for competence development and evaluation ensures that a graduate has the proficiencies needed to excel and contribute to the field. To do this, the gap between universities and water-related businesses must be bridged with constant and intentional communication. At AQUAdemia, the standard academic model is disrupted, and a new hands-on competence-oriented approach is taken, where students are applied to internships within relevant industries to gain the competences necessary for a full understanding of the field. This innovative direction has revitalized the relationships between universities and relevant businesses, and allowed students to make the most of their education.
Communicating Relevant Competences
To align university competences with industry ones, AQUAdemia had to first achieve a full understanding of the task. With five countries involved, the need for communication was massive. Both the university and industry sectors are affected by this “silo-ing”, creating a chasm of understanding between the two. AQUAdemia had to break through this barrier to increase communication and further the relationship between sectors.
Once this barrier was overcome and the universities understood the needs of the field, a new restriction arose: How could the enhancing of the curriculum be done to ensure students are attaining these competences, without costing the university more resources than it has already allocated?
The answer lies in the newly strengthened relationship with the water-related industries. The university would rely on these businesses to provide internships for the students, to enact the new curriculum. This model would provide the sustainable and transferable approach necessary to the success of the partnership in the long term.
The Process Utilized
The process of activities is centered around the communication between sectors. It begins with identifying the problems water-related industries are currently facing and the competences needed to address them. By gathering information with interviews and surveys, the university can understand what the current demands are for employment. The university then translates the problems into projects, designing a curriculum to reflect on all the major competences the businesses need.
The collaboration of university and business continues as they jointly build internships based on the projects identified, in order to give the businesses the human capital they need while ensuring students are gaining the right knowledge. This is then evaluated by both sectors, and upon completion, certified for future employment usage.
AQUAdemia is accomplishing the difficult task of quantifying intangible outcomes. The knowledge students receive is being translated into a concrete metric for comparison across the employment pool, which creates value for both the university and businesses. The university can now accurately compare their students, and by association, themselves against others implementing the same system. Employers can now ensure that their new hires are qualified for the water-related industries they’re entering.
Benefits for All
This combination of curriculum development and delivery with student mobility is an incredibly strong tool, leading all three stakeholders to benefit. The businesses increase their return on employee and enhance the efficiency in outside projects. The students become more valuable and competent, increasing their chances for employability. And the final stakeholder, the university, benefits from the improved program, which in turn improved their reputation with industry, and increases their educational value to students.
AQUAdemia model has proven success, and the consortium has currently published a journal article* on the developments in the water-related industries, as well as projects born out of their system. This system has the potential to be translated across disciplines and countries, and potentially expand to more applications within universities, further defining skills gained by students based on work experience in relevant industries.
* The complete AQUAdemia model is described in detail and published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, in a special issue on Water Innovation published in 2018 (Bikfalvi, A., Marques, P., Pérez-Cabaní, M.-L., Juandó Bosch, J., Rodriguez-Roda, I. (2018) Bridging academia and water-related business through competence development: Evidence from a pan-European project, Journal of Cleaner Production, 171, pp. S20-S33)
Image Credit: AQUAdemia