COOPERATION BETWEEN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS AND INDUSRY IN BULGARIA IN THE FIELD OF LOGISTICS

Associate Professor Miroslava Rakovska, PhD
Head of the Department of Logistics at the University of National and World Economy,Vice-dean in scientific and research activity of the Economics of Infrastructure Faculty and Chairman of the Managing Council of the Bulgarian Logistics Association

 

Abstract: The interaction between higher education institutions (HEIs) and industry is one of the aspects of the “knowledge triangle” concept which lies at the heart of the European policy for fostering innovations. The article discusses the cooperation between HEIs and industry in Bulgaria after the example of the Department of Logistics at the University of National and World Economy and outlines the good practices and the opportunities for future development. The analysis shows that the forms of this cooperation are diverse, which is due to the fact that the specialty is much practically-oriented.  The integration of HEIs and industry throughout the education of students and the conduit of scientific research in the field of logistics and supply chain management brings benefits to both parties and is a driving force towards the achievement of a high level of professional and scientific competence.

Key words: cooperation, higher education institutions, industry, logistics, supply chain management.

 

Introduction

During the last decade the “knowledge triangle” concept has become the heart of the European policy for fostering innovations. This term relates to the cooperation between higher education institutions (HEIs), industry and research based on increased knowledge flows with the aim to foster innovations.1 It is very often that at the basis of the interaction between HEIs and industry stands the need to provide conformity between the academic programs and practice, as well as opportunities for early contact between industry and the potential workforce. The article aims to assess the cooperation between HEIs and industry in Bulgaria in the field of logistics in order to outline the best practices and opportunities for future development. A case study is conducted at the University of National and World Economy (UNWE) on the basis of the long-term experience of the author as a professor, scientific secretary and head of the Department of Logistics, who has been directly involved in the realization of the good practices. The case study is developed within the Erasmus+ project “FRAMELOG: European Knowledge Triangle in the Logistics Sector”), which includes analysis of 13 European HEIs.

In order to achieve the above stated aim, the article is structured as follows: First, literature review is performed; Second, the research methodology is presented; Third, UNWE’s good practices in its interaction with industry in the field of logistics are discussed; Fourth, summary and conclusions are made and the opportunities for further development are outlined.

Literature review

University education is posed with the challenge to continuously adapt degrees, their contents and training methods in order to meet industry demands.2 This requires the establishment and maintenance of cooperation relationships between HEIS and industry (CHI). The importance of that cooperation increases, because it leads to reciprocal benefits not only for both parties, but for society as well. From the 1980s, CHI has intensified and therefore received growing attention from researchers, practitioners and policy-makers.3 Now, cooperation between the two sectors is considered an important social responsibility.4

An increasing number of researchers focus on the governmental measures that support CHI. For example, Seppo and Rõigas assess these measures in Europe and conclude that their intensity and scope vary heavily between the countries. The authors’ analysis reveals that Finnish, Austrian, Belgian, Danish and Swedish systems are the best balanced and provide high support and intensity of that cooperation. On the other hand, Estonia, Bulgaria and Italy are characterized with having the smallest number of support measures as well as a weaker cooperation from the firms’ side concerning higher education problems.5

The motivation of both parties (HEIs and industry) to cooperate is different. Generally, due to the increasing global competition, industry is posed to the need to seek new methods for improving competitiveness, including knowledge transfer from HEIs, attracting talented potential employees and increasing company image.  On the other hand, the scientists’ motives to cooperate with industry are quite heterogeneous. Due to the insufficient public funding, the interactions with industry are considered as a source of complementary resources to finance the academic system as well as to provide equipment, laboratories, materials and other tools supporting the education. CHI can also help to improve the quality of research and teaching through the provision of a practical context and the exposure of students and faculty to practical problems and novelties. By cooperating with industry, researchers can gain access to innovative techniques, up-to-date equipment and feedback from practice on research ideas and results. Moreover, CHI also enhances the HEI’s and the researcher’s reputation.6 We can conclude that CHI is an important method for achieving the goals of both HEIs and industry.

Among the frequently cited in literature areas of interactions between HEIs and industry are the theoretical and applied research projects, meetings and conferences, student and researcher mobility, consultancy and training, joint supervision of master and doctoral  theses and informal contacts as well.7

A study among representatives of the academic and business world indicates that there is a need for a more practically inclined education, closer to industry requirements, and that participation of professionals in the academic courses and internships in companies are the mechanisms with greatest impact on graduates’ employability.8 Another study reveals that industry expects HEIs to develop necessary graduates’ competencies and that it is prone to cooperate in this process with providing graduates with the opportunity to gain practical experience and to be recruited. However, companies are less interested in involving academics in their business processes.9 Plewa et al. show the importance of cooperation mechanisms such as alumni networks, promotion of CHI in public  and, mostly the presence of business people on HEI boards and vice versa, for the provision of conformity between education and practice concerning curricula design and delivery.10 Furthermore, the authors assert that rather than concentrating on financial or non-financial resources to stimulate industry to cooperate with HEIs, managers of both parties should focus on developing or improving the relationships at a higher management level as a medium for performing joint activities.

These interactions can take place without the direct participation of the HEIs as organization. Bodas Freitas et al. reveal that personal contractual relationships between companies and individual academics amount to at least 50% of CHI.11 However, these informal links reveal opportunities for the establishment of a formal cooperation on an institutional level.

In the field of logistics the relation between theory and practice and its inclusion in the educational processes are not new. CHI takes place most often through organized company visits, embedding business projects in course content12, using guest lecturers from industry to reveal useful practical experience13, and providing students with real-life problems and contemporary tools and techniques for their solution.14

The literature review revealed the importance of the researched problem, particularly of the interlinkage between HEIs and industry, especially for practically oriented specialties such as logistics. This field is still not very well researched in Bulgaria and therefore reveals many opportunities for studying its various aspects, including intensity of CHI, motivation of the parties involved, challenges and future development to improve the international competitiveness of Bulgarian HEIs that deliver education in logistics/supply chain management.

Research methodology

The research design is qualitative since it is based on a case study in order to gain in-depth understanding of the interface between HEIs and industry in the field of logistics. There are four HEIs that provide education in business logistics in Bulgaria – UNWE, University of Economics – Varna, Georgi Rakovski Military Academy and Vasil Levski National Military University. The object of the research is UNWE in the face of its Department of Logistics. It is chosen due to the fact that UNWE is the biggest university in the country, delivering high education in the field of economics and management and the Department of Logistics at UNWE has the longest experience in business logistics training in Bulgaria (27 years) and is a leader concerning accumulated experience, number of graduates and public recognition.

The sources of empirical data for the case study are the author’s experience (primary sources) as well as university and departmental documents (secondary sources).

Good practices for cooperation between UNWE and industry in the field of logistics

UNWE is the leader in Bulgarian higher education with 97 years of history. There are 21 534 students in UNWE studying in the regular or distance form of education in the bachelor’s or master’s degree and 450 doctoral students. 15

Since its inception 98 years ago, University graduates have risen to be prominent scientists, statesmen, ministers, MPs, men of affairs. Education in UNWE is highly valued by business – according to recent data, around 97%, or practically all of UNWE graduates, are successful on the labour market.16

Following the strategic research framework for the period 2016-2020, a large part of the research output is mainly practically-oriented and is accompanied by an increasing amount of funds attracted from national or foreign sources.17 An important aspect of the academic community’s contribution to industry and the state is the participation of UNWE professionals in management and expert boards, as well as in consulting various projects and business endeavours.

The Department of Logistics and the specialty of Business Logistics were founded in 1991, which made UNWE the first HEI not only in Bulgaria but also in Eastern Europe to offer specialized training in logistics. The extensive experience of the professors from the Department of Logistics, as well as the cooperation with prominent universities from USA, Switzerland, France, Germany and the UK, play a major role in building a contemporary educational content, and in the incorporation of the latest trends in the development of the logistics theory and practice.

The department offers one bachelor’s program in Business Logistics and two master’s programs in Supply Chain Management and Business Logistics, as well as a Supply Chain Management master’s degree in English for foreign and Bulgarian students. The syllabuses meet industry demands and are developed after a detailed analysis of programs in logistics in universities from EU member states.

In November 2017 the programs in Business Logistics and in Supply Chain Management in the bachelor’s and master’s degrees were successfully accredited by the European Logistics Association – ELA, which is an evidence for the high quality of the education. Students that succeed above 4,40 are exempted from the exams for the certification levels European Junior Logistician (EJLog) and European Senior Logistician (ESLog) for the  programs in Business Logistics and in Supply Chain Management, respectively.

The PhD programme in Business Logistics has been accredited by the National Evaluation and Accreditation Agency twice with a high rating for a period of six years. Eight students, one of them foreign, successfully defended their doctoral thesis. Currently there are 13 doctoral students.

The department admits yearly around 60 students in the bachelor’s and 30-35 in the master’s degree, and the latter have shown an upward trend. The vast majority of graduates is employed in diverse industry sectors and contributes to the development of logistics in the country. The industry offers well-paid jobs, and university graduates are taken on in the logistics departments of manufacturing enterprises, trading firms and logistics service providers (for transport, freight forwarding, warehousing, customs agency services and others), and are promoted all the way up to top positons in the management board. The employment rate among the graduates of the Department of Logistics is almost 100%.

The Centre for Logistics Research and Training was established as an ancillary unit to the Department of Logistics in 2000. Its advisory board was set up by the department’s academic staff and industry representatives. The Centre participates in the development and implementation of academic projects together with companies and other HEIs. Funds are raised from external organizations.

The department is a longstanding and active partner of logistics service providers, manufacturing and commercial companies with well-developed logistics departments as well as non-profit organizations such as Bulgarian chamber of commerce and industry, Bulgarian industrial association, Bulgarian logistics association, Bulgarian association for management, development and entrepreneurship, Association of the Bulgarian enterprises for international transport and roads, among others. The constant contact with them ensures the exchange of valuable information and supports the educational and research processes.

Specific initiatives for improving the cooperation with industry. The Department of Logistics launched a number of specific initiatives directed towards the application of an innovative approach to teaching and research and their integration in industry. The applied innovative teaching methods aim to ensure the high quality of educational and research practices.

Establishment of an Advisory Board in the Department of Logistics. The Board consists of industry representatives – senior logistics or supply chain managers. Its main function is to offer initiatives for linking education, research and industry in the field of logistics and supply chain management and to support their implementation with the aim to increase the employment rate of the department graduates. The Board meets at the beginning of every semester to decide upon the initiatives for the respective semester.

Teaching through case studies. This is a method in which the professor simulates real situations that are part of the logistics processes of different companies. Students are separated into small groups tasked with solving a logistics problem. The purpose of discussing case studies is to stimulate independent thinking and analysis of real situations and decision making. The professor’s goal is to put every student in a different setting with each new case in order to show other viewpoints and to develop student skills to work in a team. For the purpose of teaching through case studies, partnering companies provide their real business projects and problem solutions, which are then developed in the form of training cases by the professors teaching the relevant disciplines.

Attracting guest lecturers and full time professors from industry. The principle of integrating education and industry is at the basis of attracting logistics and supply chain management professionals as lecturers. Not long ago the department launched a new initiative called “Meet the business – be successful in logistics” with a series of monthly lectures presented by prominent logistics managers. The department uses this well-established teaching practice through organization of open lectures presented by professionals, practical presentations (for example the presentation of a “mobile” simulation warehouse and the functioning of barcode systems), etc.

The courses are scheduled in one of the technologically equipped study halls in UNWE. Presentations are thematically linked to the studied subjects, but highly practically-oriented and give the students the opportunity to get to know the real industry processes at first-hand. Those lectures are initiated by the Department of Logistics but are completely funded by the participating companies.  The lectures are public, they are announced in advance on the website and on UNWE’s shared intranet and are accessible to any of the interested parties. This is a well-established practice not only for educating students but also for promoting the department and the Business Logistics specialty to the first and second year students that choose a specialty at the end of the second year.

There are incentives for the business professionals to take part in the education process – they want to share their experience and to boost students’ motivation. These meetings also provide an opportunity to establish a direct contact between industry and the potential employees.

Over the last 7 years, a new trend for integrating industry in education has become evident – hiring professionals with longstanding experience in the field of logistics as regular professors. More than half of the regular professors in the department have over 10 years of experience as logistics managers. Hence, academic teaching steps out of its traditional theoretical basis as it is enriched with real cases and personal practical experience.

Internships in partnering companies. According to the bachelor’s degree curriculum, the students are bound to complete before graduation 120 hours of internship as part-time employees in a company from the logistics sector or in the logistics department of a manufacturing or trading company. The goal is to reveal the application of the theoretical concepts in practice. The internship is led by a supervisor from the department and a person in charge from the company. Guidelines for conducting an internship are published on the departments’ website.18 The contents of the guidelines have been discussed in essence with industry representatives. There is also a suggested feedback form as well as criteria for evaluating student work. Business Logistics students benefit from the stable traditional relationships of the department with industry and conduct their internships in companies such as Coca-Cola HBC, Fresh Logic, LIDL, Kaufland, Grammer, Militzer and Munch, Discordia, World Transport Overseas, Gopet Trans, MW Logistics, etc. In 2013 the department launched an initiative to contractually bind companies to participate in student internships.

To support the internships as a part of the curriculum, the Department of Logistics teams up successfully with the Bulgarian Logistics Association for the launch of a job-search website specialized in logistics positions19. The platform is attractive to employers who can promote jobs in logistics and for logistics professionals or students who can focus their search on an internship or a new job in logistics. It is the first platform of this kind in Bulgaria that is characterized by the largest database for logistics professionals in the country, targeting at people with practical experience and/or education in logistics and supply chain management, and precise announcements in nearly 20 categories specific for logistics.

Organized visits of students in partnering companies. In order to support the practical training in the special disciplines, each term the Department of Logistics organizes at least two visits in companies so that students can acquire first-hand knowledge of the logistic processes in real life. These visits are preceded by a preliminary preparation on the sides of the professors and the host company. The company is acquainted with issues studied in order to provide compliance with the company processes to be presented to students. At the same time, the professors receive feedback from the companies related to the course contents.

Talent stimulation. The initiative “Manager for a day” was carried out for the first time in the 2017/2018 academic year and attracted considerable interest among students. In this initiative a company determines a topic to be developed by the students in the form of a case study, essay, project proposal and other flexible forms of presenting the talented students’ ideas. After the assessment of the presented works by the company, the best performing students receive the opportunity to accompany the logistics/supply chain manager during a working day to get acquainted with his/her working responsibilities and challenges.

Linking PhD programs with practice. The PhD degree in Business Logistics has a 23 years history and specific features in the context of the Bulgarian academic environment as it is the only one in Bulgaria.

The research of the PhD students is focused on the issues at stake in the development of logistics and the logistics sector in Bulgaria and this determines the program’s highly specialized focus. Students are directed towards research on current topics at the different stages of science and practice in the domain of logistics and receive full support by the partnering organizations with the provision of empirical data and the inclusion of state-of-the- art methods in their thesis.

In recent years there is a growing interest on the part of companies in education and research in logistics. The fact that logistics managers and consultants from large companies in Bulgaria and Europe, such as Overgas, Speedy, Coca-Cola, M&M, Agility Switzerland, Deloitte Germany, Lufthansa Technik, are approached to participate in the teaching process, is a testimony to that. The topics of these managers’ theses are closely related to their practical experience and drive the incorporation of practice into the research and training activities of the Department of Logistics.

Collaboration in the field of company trainings. The Department of Logistics has excellent traditions in setting and developing collaboration with Bulgarian and international companies with respect to their employees’ training. The trainings are organized and carried out by the Centre for Logistic Research and Training. An example of a good practice is the three-month course on logistics for 25 managers from CEZ Bulgaria. The course was carried out by the department’s academic staff and was financed by the company.

Another example is the five-month course on logistics and supply chain management for 36 employees in different companies in Bulgaria with the participation of professors from the Italian logistics association (AILOG). The course was funded by the Italian ministry of foreign trade and the Italian institute for foreign trade (ICE). Apart from the course itself, the joint program also ended up with the publication of a bilingual Italian-Bulgarian and Bulgarian-Italian glossary of logistics terms. The academic community, trainees and industry have all appreciated highly the benefits of the course.

The last example of CHI relates to the cooperation with Coca-Cola HBC. Following the initiative of the center, a contract was signed in March 2018 for delivering training sessions that are part of the company Supply Chain Planning Academy. Participants in the Academy are company professionals in supply chain planning from the 28 countries where Coca-Cola HBC operates.

Cooperation with industry related to research. The Department of Logistics has established, maintained and developed partnerships with potential consumers of the research output. For the period 2009-2017 doctoral students and professors from the academic unit have participated in the development of applied projects aimed at specific economic entities. Four such research projects are concluded and financed by UNWE’s research fund. Each one contains case studies developed by business professionals. The research “Contemporary aspects in the development of the logistics sector in Bulgaria” suggested ways for extending the portfolio of logistics services that were subsequently implemented in practice.

Conclusion and opportunities for future development

 Logistics education at UNWE combines theoretical and practical methods with the aim to improve the quality of knowledge. The Department of Logistics is committed to providing academic training that ensures the high level of education, experience and analytical skills. The integration of industry and teaching in logistics leads to positive changes of high quality. Joining the efforts of the department‘s academic staff with those of the practitioners is a well-established good approach in training the students and conducting research for achieving high quality of logistics competencies, developing skills in students to analyze real processes, a keen sense of teamwork and versatility in different organizational settings.

The department intends to continue the trend to recruit mainly young scientists or experienced individuals for regular lecturers. Among the department’s priorities also is to attract part-time lecturers from business that provide at least 10% of the teaching hours for a given discipline in the master’s degree. BLA, which already offers a virtual job search platform, can improve it by adding topics of lectures from which the business representatives may choose to apply for participation in the students’ practical training. The department together with its business partners, works towards the introduction of a mentorship program, where managers become student mentors and support them in the course of their studies through professional counseling. It also plans to start certification of companies that support research and education development in the field of logistics.

The discussed above good practices, applied by one of the HEIs providing logistics education in Bulgaria, show that the forms of CHI in the field of logistics are quite diverse, which is mainly due to the fact that the specialty is much practically-oriented. The integration of education and industry generates benefits to the students, because it leads to improvement of their practical skills in accordance with the requirements of the labour market, to an appropriate and desired choice of employment and to an easier transition to the work setting. There are benefits for industry as well mainly due to the better education of specialists, which are potential future employees. It is necessary for the other Bulgarian HEIs, providing logistics education, also to follow this integrative approach in order to improve the education quality and to create prerequisites for updating the curricula and courses according to the labour market needs. For this purpose, the focus should be on the establishment of stable partnerships between HEIs and industry including other cooperation activities except the ones discussed in this research.

 

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15 University of National and World Economy. http://www.unwe.bg/

16 UNSS, Otchet na rektorskoto rakovodstvo za perioda 12.2015-12.2016.

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18 University of National and World Economy, Department of Logistics. http://departments.unwe.bg/logistics

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