A move to deepen links between business and universities is set to boost 10-fold the number of PhD students placed with employers in research internships in the next five years.
The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI), which operates a PhD internship scheme, said that a new commitment from eight universities to fund the scheme will drive the rapid expansion.
AMSI director Geoff Prince said the scheme, called APR.Intern, would place about 100 research student in internships this year.
“At maturity we should be able to place 1000 students a year around Australia,” he said.
The scheme began by placing only mathematics and statistics PhD students into internships. But it now works with students in a wide range of disciplines – including engineering, finance, IT, biotechnology, environmental science, marketing and business – and places them into all business sectors.
Professor Prince said the expanded scheme would help lift Australia’s poor record in establishing partnerships between university researchers and business.
Australia is currently ranked 29th out of 30 countries in an OECD ranking of university-business collaboration on innovation.
Under the APR.Intern scheme research students are placed with a business for four to five months to find solutions for specific problems. Students are mentored by an academic supervisor during the internship which meant that academics built ongoing relationships with companies.
“In general companies pay all the costs, which are eligible for research tax breaks,” Professor Prince said.
A five months internship costs the business $25,000. This is made up of $3000 a month to cover the student’s stipend (the student is not employed by the business), a $5000 fee to the university for the cost of mentoring and a $5000 fee to APR.Intern.
AMSI says that the internship scheme has a 97 per cent business satisfaction rating.
MORE THAN JUST WORK PLACEMENTS
Professor Prince said the scheme offered more than just work placements. Students undertook research internships which often had a transformational impact on the student, he said.
He said the expansion would be driven by new partnership agreements with eight universities – Melbourne, Monash, Deakin, Swinburne, La Trobe, RMIT, Sydney and UTS. Together the universities would provide $500,000 a year to employ business development staff, embedded in the universities, to place more students with companies in Victoria and NSW.
However APR.Intern already works with a wider range of universities and expects further expansion in other states in the coming two years.
Examples of internships recently arranged include a UNSW maths PhD student placed with Optima Financial to apply the mathematical technique of optimisation to financial planning and a Deakin University PhD student placed with NBN Co to work on security of data in smartphone apps.
Professor Prince said there was an urgent need to increase the penetration of graduates with advanced research expertise into the private sector.
“They will boost innovation and business-university collaboration but we must give them those skills and give business the confidence to employ them,” Professor Prince said.
Currently Australia has one of the lowest numbers of research workers in business in developed countries. Only 2.2 researchers are employed in business for every 100 workers.