The Maine Development Foundation and the Maine State Chamber recently released a report on the importance of higher education for the future of the Maine economy.

It is full of the standard warnings about Maine’s aging population, our under-enrollment in higher education and the importance of promoting innovation in our businesses.

It is also full of recommendations urging the University of Maine System to attract more students, conduct more research, give Maine students the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow and allocate more of its “resources” to helping Maine businesses.

From the point of view of practical economic development, the recommendations addressing this last idea are the most interesting.

The report calls for the system to “align curricula and courses with the needs of Maine businesses … .” To accomplish this goal, it recommends that each system campus establish a Business Advisory Board “to inform the universities of workforce and skill needs across the Maine economy, to assist faculty in curriculum development, and to assist graduating students to find employment.”

Another recommendation urges the system to deliver “the University System’s knowledge, technical capacity and people to help advance (Maine) businesses.”

The system is to accomplish this goal by entering “into partnerships to fund and develop technical facilities,” by requiring “a minimum number of hours of economic or community development service for faculty and students” and by creating a “coordinated intern program across the system that serves businesses and nonprofits statewide and gives students (learning and working) opportunities outside their regions.”

All of these recommendations come on top of a direct elaboration of Maine’s declining support for higher education through the state’s General Fund, our low ranking on a variety of measures of research and development activity, and a clear call for Maine taxpayers to step up to the plate and increase their support for this key component of our future prosperity.

It’s a tall order: lots of shoulds about wrenching behavior changes on the part of faculty and administrators and lots more shoulds about the increased funding needed to make the changes and enroll more students.

Good luck. That’s going to be a tough sell, particularly in the climate we’re likely to see in Augusta over the next two years.

It seems to me that the sell would be a little easier if instead of giving all the extra money to the system and hoping its leaders can induce their faculty to change patterns of curriculum development, form business partnerships and create internships, we instead just gave the money to the Business Advisory Boards directly.

The university has a long and well-established history of competing for all manner of federal and foundation grant funds.

In addition, Maine has the example of the Maine Technology Institute soliciting proposals for both operational programs and, thanks to Maine voter support for technology bonds, for capital development programs as well.

And, as has been demonstrated by support for the University of New England’s pharmacy and dental schools, support need not be limited to the University of Maine System alone.

If Maine really wants to support the development of a more truly entrepreneurial system of higher education, are we better served giving more money to the university system and saying that it “should” cooperate more closely with Maine’s business community in developing the training programs and research facilities they need?

Or, are we better served by giving that money directly to industry associations and letting them solicit, evaluate and fund ideas from institutions of higher education?

I think the latter approach would work better.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]