Universities are not Innovation Bootcamps

This is an extended version of an opinion piece published (here, paywalled) in the Sunday Business Post Sunday 8 September 2013, authored by Charles Larkin and myself.


innovationIrish universities remits and units are shrinking in most areas, with one exception it seems. There has been a growth over the last number of years in university-based industrial incubators. These subsidized hot presses are designed to encourage faculty and students to create tomorrow’s Google or Facebook, and with it  money for the universities and  jobs for the politicians. Of course, faced with 400k on the live register we will need a lot of FaceGoogles to make a dent.Facebook has about 5k staff, so 80 of those will do nicely. We merely need 10 googles. Good luck with that. 

At one level these incubootcamplators amount to free or cheap office space and IT; at the other these amount to startup boot camps where (typically) students are run through courses delivered by existing entrepreneurs and academics to generate ideas and to carry them to the market. These showcase units attract a lot of attention, playing as they do into the apparent government desire for us all to become entrepreneurs. Lets leave aside the actual numbers and facts on Irish entrepreneurship : that we have a high level of forced entrepreneurs (the TINAEs those for whom there is no alternative to entrepreneurship)  and that the attraction of entrepreneurship is waning rapidly. Innovation and entrepreneurship are, officially, a Good Thing To Be In Favor Of


brazil-03Incubators and accelerators have become, without any proper debate, the method by which entrepreneurship has moved into being a core function of higher education. We are knee deep in the entrepreneurial big muddy and on we press, the classic escalation of prior commitment (also known as throwing good money after bad) paradigm being played out in real time. Universities now are expected to foster and support innovation and enterprise with time, money and materials, diverting these from existing activities already under pressure from declining funding and increased demands.  Most worryingly, and with scant discussion in he media or elsewhere, the proposed new funding model for universities has a requirement for “high quality research and innovation” as a core element.  When did the two get conflated? By whom? Where was that debate played out? Do we now take it that only research which is likely to produce innovative wotsits is worthy of funding? Recognition? Approval? What a dreary academy that would be, a higher education “Brazil”


1-s2.0-S0048733303000234-gr2One of the proposed key system objectives is to foster increased university-enterprise connections, the so-called “triple helix model” of universities, government and industry, and have these measured by an EU level index (the summary Innovation Index). that the overlap of all these bears a remarkable similarity to the Danger trefoil is perhaps unfortunate.  This approach has very little to do with innovation and a lot to do with how many graduates there are and how much is spent. It is a classic inputs driven approach to evaluating outputs, which is easy for bureaucrats and meaningless in terms of actually fostering improvements. It will foster systemic gaming, as what gets measured gets managed and wha gets managed gets funded.  Within universities there is a push towards making innovation a key element of strategic planning, in some cases with the wholesale repositioning of business schools towards innovation centered units regardless of capacity, competence, ability or interest. IBEC, a lobby group, is to be given a key role, via satisfaction surveys, in the measurement of how universities are adhering to national strategic objectives. Again, I must have missed the debate on whether or not a single member of the Bertie system of social partnership is an appropriate body to be involved in the process of evaluating  Irish education. Why is the happiness of IBEC members more, or less, important than any other? Again we see the wholesale stealth movement of universities away from being handmaidens of knowledge and towards the concubine of industry. When did that debate take place? 


CU_handbookWe have seen in parallel over the last decade a growing corporatization of universities. At one level this is not problematic, as these large organizations require professional competent management, but it is a worrying trend. In the US, 40% of the increase in the cost of higher education since 1988 has been attributed to administrative costs. While universities can be run on a for-profit basis there is little desire for this in Ireland, but declining state funds and funding incentives designed to cover up this reduction of resources drive universities towards greater corporate involvement as a requirement for survival. When you are drowning  any port is a haven, regardless of what lurks on land. Irish (especially) domestic and (to some extent) multinational firms have shown little willingness to develop long-term linkages with universities beyond the requirements of public relations and photo opportunities. All too often there is an appearance that short-termism is all that is required, cheerleaded, most sadly, by local representatives and parliamentarians.  


bureaucrat1It is also ironic that increasingly bureaucratically managed universities are now expected to lead innovation. In most cases this involves a plethora of committees, new appointments to lead academies and centers, and a host of administrators. A less conducive approach to fostering innovation could hardly be thought of. Those of us that work in universities are aware that  at the bottom of the heap there is a veritable tumult of ideas as to how to improve the student experience, make the system work more effectively, increase research productivity and improve staff morale. By the time these ideas are filtered through the increasing corporate sclerosis that passes for management few ideas if any are discussed not to mind approved. Just try to get a flipped module on the financial crisis and what it tells us about the nature of management responses to crises generally onto the teaching roster in a leading business school and see how far you get …Universities are being managed more and more in a mechanistic, Taylorist manner which is the exact antithesis of how a knowledge organization should be managed. Alas, such methods are attractive to government and funding bureaucrats and provide ample opportunities for academics to move from the coalface of teaching and research to administer and micromanage. Whereas before that would have involved much liasion with students and faculty now exciting vistas of corporate engagement open up. Until and unless a culture of innovation and an acceptance of the need to allow this all across the universities emerges they will not be able to lead any innovative or entrepreneurial charge. Being innovative involves risks. Most university managers are enormously risk averse and so innovation is stifled at birth or filtered through layers of committees until the downside of any risk is spread thin. 


nov_pol_pres_lunchHow have we ended up in a situation where the only representative body that will have a role in determining how universities are doing is IBEC? This represents the final capitulation of the government to the concept of universities as having an economic role only. IBEC has as much and as little role in assessing the output and fitness of the higher education sector as do Aosdana, or the ICA or the GAA. Universities exist for and to serve society, not just the economy. IBEC is the last man standing of the Bertite approach to social partnership, and it remains a powerful if shadowy lobby for its members. But the needs of IBEC members, or the wails of ISME, the Continuity SFA about quality are those of a sectoral lobby, nothing more nothing less. There is a clear perception from some recent pronouncements that that quality is narrowly definable as “immediately deployable at work, trained by the taxpayer so that business doesn’t have to incur the cost while reaping the benefit” 


transferable_skills1What universities provide graduates with are skills and knowledge.  These can be divided into two kinds – specific and general. The  focus of entrepreneurship education and the growth of innovation hubs is on specific skills, namely, those around innovating and starting a business. The best such recognize that these are in fact different – thinking up an idea and carrying it through require very different skillsets.  Entrepreneurs are risk takers and relish ambiguity and control of their own environment while innovators tend to add to those willingness to change and a restless curiosity. While there is overlap there is also distinction. One of the emergent findings  appears to be that while skills can be taught entrepreneurs may be born, not made.  Sure training can provide skills and techniques for successful carrying on a business, but it is highly debatable as to whether the mindset itself is teachable or learnable. While we devote resources to these specific skills we are of necessity not devoting them to other specific skills or to generic (transferable) skills. Indeed, it is these generic skills, many of which originate at second level, that employers actually value. If someone wants a specialist in finance they will seek someone with ACCA or CFA or CAIA qualifications. They will pay well for these skills but they do not expect (although might like) to have students emerge straight from college with them. What they expect is that students will have the skills in knowledge acquisition, in information processing and in interpersonal skills to allow them gain these subject specific skills and to keep them honed in a lifelong learning environment. These general skills, in mathematical competence, linguistic capacity, reasoning and inference, in juxtaposing theory with practice and linking the specific with the general are of benefit to society not just to IBEC or C-SFA ISME .  Making universities focus more and more on specific skills or chasing political fads is to ensure that universities blur into corporate training centers  and that private rewards are placed before the public good.  Instead of putting scarce resources into the dubious chase to create a generation of entrepreneurs from our universities perhaps recall what it is we want them to create – educated persons with specific skills sufficient to provide them with depth in an area but with a breadth of general skills which will enable them to be valuable members of society. These skills are costly to acquire, both in terms of students time and effort and in terms of the support and infrastructure required to assess their acquisition.  By all means encourage and support students who wish to demonstrate an entrepreneurial bent – but why should universities provide the infrastructure for these when such exist externally, both with public and private provision. I suspect that most of the rather few successful graduates of these accelerators would have found a way towards their aim without a university led and fostered hothouse. In some senses, state supported as they are, these incubators crowd out private competitors. 


 knowledgeispowerlicenseplatewebLets reward not just that but also social involvement through perhaps volunteering, or leadership qualities perhaps via sport or mentoring. If knowledge is indeed power a breadth of knowledge is power across a wide range of human endeavors. Lets reward skills in areas such as personal development and extracurricular cognitive skills.  Universities now work on a credit system within the European Credit Transfer System – each year is typically worth 60 credits. Lets mandate that 10 of these must be achieved outside the system. Lets devise a system where the student who achieves a high level in chess is rewarded as is the student who mentors intellectually disabled children, who captains a county or college camogie team or the one who sets up a company. Lets reward breadth of achievement and foster a generation of graduates who are embedded in society not merely aiming to create a generation of reluctant entrepreneurs. Universities are not,should not be made and must not let themselves become innovation bootcamps. 


15 thoughts on “Universities are not Innovation Bootcamps

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Universities are not Innovation Bootcamps

  2. Brian Mulligan

    I love most of the stuff in this article but I’m concerned about the motivations. I agree that universities might not be much good at encouraging innovation and that some of the target groups (eg young unemployed) might not be the most suitable. And indeed there is a stifling bureaucracy in our institutions that is making them less innovative themselves. However, we can’t complain on the basis that we like things the way they are so I’m a little concerned about the comment “What a dreary academy that would be”. HIgher education does not exist for the benefit of those who work in higher education. We need to justify what we do and it can’t be just on the basis that Knowledge and Education are “good things”. We need to quantifiably demonstrate how these good things contribute to quality of life if only to determine what proportion of our resources can be allocated to this worthy activity. My guess is that we can prove that Knowledge and Education are good things but that we are spending too much on them. Now who could we ask to do this work. Hmmm. An economist?

    1. brianmlucey Post author

      theres an enormous literature on the socioeconomic benefits of HE Brian. Enormous. That people dont want to believe the evidence shows how ingrained the prejudices are.

    2. andrewggibson

      What of those things that aren’t so readily quantifiable? What if the work being done (in arts and humanities and social sciences for example) is better described in some situations as scholarship rather than research? What if those disciplines are also better more geared toward developing understanding than creating knowledge? And why is it a matter of course that those working in Higher Education have biased motivations dedicated purely to their own self-preservation, whereas those whom they must justify themselves (research councils, administrators, the Department of Finance) are assumed to be objective? It needs to be said that (i) not everything is quantifiable, and (ii) even the quantitative is qualitative.

  3. iainmacl

    Excellent piece and much needed contribution to counter-balance the relentless assault on a broader education that we are seeing in much of the rest of the media. [I won’t point to a somewhat relevant article I wrote as a review of the historical literature on creativity and how those research findings are also totally ignored in practice. That would be shameful self-promotion and that’s not what the web is about 😉 ] Instead though what might be of more interest to yourself and your readership is Cathy Davison’s planned open online discussion on the past and future of higher education. It is hoped that there can be more European perspectives in this initiative and contributions would, I’m sure, be very welcome. For more details see http://www.hastac.org/collections/history-and-future-higher-education

  4. Pingback: Universities are not Innovation Bootcamps | Inn...

  5. bossbutteringbee

    Ireland is dealing with the consequences of post industrialisation. I dont happen to believe that states such as Ireland can significantly influence enterprise and undertake effective long-range tax farming. Planning agencies, political parties and lobby groups vie to implant and activate a mishmash of individually-useful but collectively incoherent policies, in many cases without consultation with those affected. Most of them address symptoms rather than underlying causes.
    It is an unfortunate fact that all Irish third level institutions are almost entirely state-funded and therefore are strategy-takers not makers.
    In recent years there has been a torrent of PR concerning university-centric research, development and innovation, and several generously-funded enterprise support policies aimed at industry which make academic-led R&D a requirement. These have failed to deliver significant commercial outputs. In the absence of credible public-domain research it is impossible to be certain why.
    In my experience (which is of course subjective), the attributes that capable and experienced innovative tech businesses need in their hires are very scarce in Ireland. This is simply because there are very few businesses in Ireland who are tech-based and who innovate. It is through employment in such businesses that graduates obtain the sort of early to mid career experiences that allow them to develop the relevant skills and competences. A clue to this is found in the fact that apparently only 1200 or so firms claim R&D tax credits in a population of approx 250k limited companies.
    Managers of entrepreneurial tech company have perspectives on the people they want to hire which are not represented by ISME or IBEC. When hiring engineers, technologists and business developers myself, I looked for evidence of excellence in any part of a candidates profile (i.e. not limited to their professional functions or paper qualifications). I looked for people with 2.1 graduate degrees and rarely valued those with PhD or MBA qualifications any more highly. I looked for those who had ego’s under control, who were curious, intuitive, communicative and bright and who possessed interesting work experience gained in part outside the state. I also looked for experience of employment in a highly-regulated industry.
    In short, I looked for people who had completed a what amounted to a professional apprenticeship in R&D, manufacturing or selling. I struggle to see how ‘hothousing’ people in an academic setting for some months then issuing them with a diploma in cold-calling and use of social media is a substitute for apprenticeship or professional development. I also fail to understand why the architects of such schemes believe that the type of training and project exposure needed to convert embryonic professionals into credible candidates for entrepreneurial business are to be found in universities. It is also notable that professional institutions who might be expected to have views about these policies, such as Engineers Ireland and the Institute of Designers in Ireland remain largely silent.
    I think a better approach would include commissioning the design of a quality apprenticeship system along German lines, to provide an attractive alternative to graduate degrees, as well as a top-up to degrees in STEM subjects, including a system of state subsidy payments to participating employers.

  6. LearnLode (@LearnLode)

    I believe that the model of siting start up incubators in higher education units can be enormously positive for both sides. I’m co founder of a technology start up located in the CIT Rubicon centre http://www.rubiconcentre.ie/. While one data point does not a trend make, I couldn’t speak highly enough of the model. From our perspective, we have a pool of expertise on our doorstep, and educators more than willing to collaborate with us on projects. Those collaborations have real value for us, and give students and researchers a sense of what working with and for business needs. While the kinds of collaborations we do are likely to be of more value to business or technology facing markets, I currently a number of projects on my to do list that would be a better fit for a philosophy student than anyone else, and I never thought that could happen. Robert Cosgrave

  7. LearnLode (@LearnLode)

    Agreed. Part of the trouble with higher education is that it’s so useful. Everyone sees their own little bit of the elephant as it’s vital, core mission. The idea that a cancer research centre, a hurling team, a start up incubator and an expert in Pheonician civilisation* could successfully cohabit the same organisation is a difficult one for inflexible minds. (*Not all these things are in CIT, but you get the idea).

  8. sd

    The people who are pushing for universities to churn out the next high tech innovations are the same people who that that Seanie, Drummer, Allied, Bank and Permo were the captains of industry.

    There is a way for high tech innovation to come out of universities, to place the onus entirely on individual researchers is not the way forward. Universities should themselves become high tech companies who can play the ‘long waiting game’ , i.e accrue patents and then develop those products and always be assured that there would be one or two commercializable ideas/products etc.. coming in the door every year. Such a model would require universities to hire full time researchers to bring these products forward.

    There was time when companies would take on 16 year olds and train them up. Then kids had to go to university to get those skillz, and no those same companies are still not happy.

  9. Pingback: Reading List #8 | Tim Klapdor

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