They are two different worlds, searching for each other but not finding each other. The relationship between Spain’s universities and its companies is tenuous and, in most cases, not quite in sync. Although both worlds recognize the vital importance of working together, they often fail to do so, says “The University and the Spanish Company,” a study published by Spain’s Knowledge and Development Foundation. The main reasons for friction between these two economic engines of the country: Universities take an overly academic approach, which clashes with the pragmatism of companies. Meanwhile, the corporate world has yet to become aware of the possibilities that universities provide.


“Those companies that have maintained some sort of relationship with universities rate the results as either satisfactory or very satisfactory,” says Francisco Solé Parellada, vice-president of the Foundation, and professor at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. “In many cases, the fundamental problem is that companies are unaware of the services that universities can provide for them.”


Among 400 companies surveyed in the study, 53% said they have not maintained any links with a university. The larger the company, the more ties it has established. In addition, companies generally take a dim view of the university’s role as an economic motor of the country. Among respondents, 33% believe that the university plays no such role; 43% believe that it lacks the organization required to do so. Meanwhile, 60% of companies say they have not made any commitment to achieve these sorts of goals by working with a university.


“These results make it clear that business needs to get closer to the academic world and vice-versa,” says Ana Patricia Botín, president of the Foundation and chief executive of Banesto, the Spanish bank.


A Source of Employment


For companies, universities have their greatest value as training grounds of the future and sources of new staff. Indeed, 83% of all companies say they have agreements to hire students, as well as training programs for them. In 70% of all cases, they expressed a high level of satisfaction with those programs. Nevertheless, the qualities that companies value most in professional staff are precisely those qualities that universities are least able to instill in their students.


Companies rate graduates highly for their theoretical knowledge, computer skills and familiarity with new technologies; analytical capacity; and desire to learn. However, companies criticize students’ lack of practical and managerial skills and their weakness in languages. These are considered the most important factors on the job.


“Universities rate highly for their role in providing theoretical knowledge, but they lack a more practical vision that is essential for companies,” says Martí Parellada, professor at the University of Barcelona. “Spanish universities have to change their structure; they have to get closer to companies and their needs. The decision-making process [at universities] is very slow, because many players and opinions play a role. Moreover, these are enormous institutions, which have numerous organizations within them. Often, various departments do not communicate with one another, and they follow different plans.”


“The administration of the university and its structure are very complex. So they have to eliminate the walls that make it hard to develop many strategies,” agrees Solé. “In addition, in public universities, there is the problem of organizational model. Professors win points for publishing in scientific magazines, but if they do 100 projects for a major company, it does them no good,” adds Parellada.


For 97% of all companies, nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit is the most important goal left unaccomplished. Moreover, 90% believe that universities must provide help for new companies that have a technological base. Exchanging professional staff is one way to provide entrepreneurial incentives while also narrowing the gap between the mindsets of these two worlds. In fact, 87% of all companies urge professors to devote a period of their professional life to corporate work. That enables them to acquire a deep understanding of the hidden workings of the corporate world. By the same token, universities think it can be very positive for executives to spend some time working within the cloisters of academia.


“Companies do not believe that the university acts as a motor of economic development or that the university has the structure it needs to achieve that goal,” says the study. “However, a very large majority of executives believe that companies should be more committed to the model of the university as a motor of economic growth.  And they are practically unanimous in agreeing that the university should promote the entrepreneurial spirit of its students, while favoring the creation of companies that have a technological foundation and promoting the mobility of professors and technicians between universities and corporations.”


Widespread Ignorance


For their part, companies also need to change their view of higher education. “Surprisingly, many companies are ignorant of the wide range of services that universities can provide for them. So they don’t use those services. Nevertheless, those who do use them are very satisfied with the results,” said Solé.


Only 36% of all companies use the consulting, training and research services that universities provide. More specialized, customized services — such as joint research and development arrangements, postgraduate courses and conferences — are used by only 27% of all companies. Most executives admit that they are unaware that they can contract for such services. Nevertheless, among those who have done so, 77% said they were highly satisfied.


“Universities have not figured out how to raise awareness that they play a role in research, consulting and specialized management training,” says Solé, “despite the fact that business schools have managed to conquer this market.” Solé also finds “differences between public universities and private ones. Private institutions generally achieve better results. However, the vast majority of universities in Spain are public institutions.”


Both universities and companies would derive major benefits from simplifying their internal structure and decision-making processes. Companies recognize that they lack some important assets that universities can provide. For example, those companies that have contracted to undertake joint R&D projects [with universities] have done so, by and large, because those companies lack in-house resources to go it alone. They also lack specialists, an asset that they can get from the university.


Companies are not driven by the desire to link up with specific universities that have a good reputation. Instead, they try to find a service they need at a university that has qualified specialists who can provide it. Fewer than three percent of all corporate respondents said that universities do poor research. Nevertheless, respondents are generally less satisfied with universities as research centers than they are with universities as centers of learning.


Dealing with Great Change


“The problem of the Spanish university is the problem of dizzying change,” says Solé. Most Spanish universities “are barely 25 years old. Before then, there were very few universities [in Spain], and only a select few could attend them. However, in recent decades, the number of universities and students has multiplied. Now, nearly everyone goes to a university. This has produced a major change, and universities must adapt by offering good services to companies, and by fulfilling their role as an economic engine.”


When universities look in the mirror, they must view their connection to the business world much the same way as British and American universities. In contrast, the problem in Latin America is even more serious than in Spain. “In Latin American countries, the situation is similar but more serious,” says Parellada. Many of the conclusions of this study can be applied to the other side of the Atlantic, where internal bureaucracies present an even greater challenge.