The web summit having come and gone, innovation and entrepreneurship are again at the forefront of the government and media attention. We have moved without much if any debate, to an apparent consensus that Irish universities and third level colleges must be the engine of innovation in the economy. The reality is however that it is probable that this is doomed to fail. In failing this impossible task the sector will inadvertently provide more ammunition to its critics. The perception of lazy academics engaging in selfpleasuring research of no use to man or beast while studiously avoiding contact with students will continue to be perpetuated. The moves to make universities into secondary schools for big kids will intensify at the same time as the sector is penalized for not achieving a set metric in an external environment where such massification is penalized. The lack of forward looking joined up thinking is alas not startling to anyone who has observed Irish ‘policy’ making in action.
A first question we should ask is whether we can in fact teach innovation. It is inate perhaps in some people that they will, regardless of their backgrounds, go forth and innovate. Innovation is the name we give to certain behaviours after the fact. In Ireland we have become lazy in our thinking about it and see it as a function of business enterprise. While on this subject we might well distinguish between innovation and entrepreneurship. The two are used interchangeably and universities are tasked with fostering both. Thus we have the growth of entrepreneurship courses, startup labs, incubators and so forth. Innovation is about new ideas, new processes, new ways of serving needs. Entrepreneurship is about starting a new business or new unit to deliver services or goods. Crucially these need not be innovative. A Kerryman Richard Cantillon described the entrepreneur perfectly – he buys something for a known price and sells it to the market at an unknow price. Entrepreneurship is about starting a new business or new unit to deliver services or goods. Crucially these need not be innovative A lot of hard work, persistence in the face of failure, communication skills and time management are involved in that effort. Interestingly, these already should be outcomes of every third level course regardless of its discipline.
There is little evidence that innovation, per se, can be taught. Skills that useful when one is innovating might be teachable. There is a large dimension of tacit knowledge that doesn’t transfer well in classroom environments. Ultimately some people have it and some don’t. What can be taught are processes and skills to allow people to hone innate innovative skills. The difficulty is that this is expensive. Courses in critical thinking, problem based learning and 360 feedback, reflective learning, these all help. But they cannot be done without significant up-skilling of those delivering the courses, they cannot be done in large classes and they are very manpower heavy. An example would the conservatory style education systems of budding writers, musicians and artists. In a resource constrained environment it is therefore difficult to see how we can move forward. But it is easy to see how in not doing so the sector will be criticised and penalised.
A further problem for Ireland is that the external environment is antipathetic to the fostering of an innovative or entrepreneurial culture in the third level. It is hardly possible to deliver skills for either innovation or entrepreneurship if the organizations are themselves immune to innovation and entrepreneurship. Universities are knowledge organizations. The organizational and management structure that is optimized for these is one that is open and not one of command and control. Joseph Stiglitz recented stated in a keynote address to the World Bank that we need to foster learning economies for growth and how we have geared our universities towards short-term patentable gains has resulted in the static and dynamic ineffeciencies that thwarts growth. A key policy therefore would be to make universities more open, not less.
At present we have the phenomena of an external body engaging in ever deeper dives into the management of the process, of top management (by which I mean the HEA and Dept of Education) expanding their control over the minutiae of staffing and product line innovation. If we want these organizations to be innovative and entrepreneurial we need to let them breath, not suffocate. When the minister and the HEA determine that there shall be such and such number of courses in area Y and so forth that kills innovation dead. When they then ask why universities are not innovative, they engage in doublespeak. We might not like that universities are knowledge organizations. But that they are is a fact. Part of that involves the fostering of innovation and creativity in the knowledge providers. This is also known as research. We neither encourage nor mentor adequately in this area, and we are in danger via the tenor of the discourse of suggesting that only a small part (the patentable tomorrow stuff) of a section (STEM) of the university is valued. The soft skills generated within the rest of the university are equally as valuable as those in the sciences. A key part of these skills emerges from the research endeavors of staff in the Arts and humanities, but these have played a fifteenth fiddle to the hard sciences. To change this will require resources however.
A more problematic issue revolves around the culture of blame in the media and politics. To be innovative is to fail, hard and repeatedly. But failure is costly. Society is now sufficiently jaded about the various organs of the State that they are unwilling to accept that any failure is the result of lady fortune and not the national cipher of a county councilor on the make, criminal negligence or someone leaning on the shovel.A university that fails in a new initiative will be accused of wasting public resources. Journalists who are unable to resist inserting themselves into the story will opine on the lazy wastefulness of the dons. Politicians who would not know an innovation from an inoculation will make speeches on the need to align universities with corporate needs. Failure, so long as it is directed and purposeful, needs to be rewarded and encouraged. Business, media, sport are all replete with examples of persistent failures who eventually succeeded. We need to foster this. Whatever social funds are deemed appropriate to the public good provision of third level should be given to the university presidents and then they should be let run their organizations.
A final issue relates to the internal culture of universities. They are not cultures that reward innovation or entrepreneurship. Committees’ spawn, meaningless administrative positions are created for academics instead of hiring professional managers, paper chases are created for the most minor activity, the pace of movement is sub-glacial, a proliferation of brass hats ensures that nobody owns a product and thus innovation proceeds haltingly. There is a paralyzing fear of failure in middle management, and a deep conservatism which serves mainly to protect the comfortable. We only need to look at the UK to see the end point: a wasteful process of micro-evaluation and industrial unrest. A radical culture change to make universities truly innovative organizations is required, as well as changes in the external environment. Stiglitz said we need to foster learning societies in order to grow. Despite the presence of our Troika overlords we have never asked them what we need to learn and how to become perpetually learning societies. Our budget said we like tax breaks, building and real estate. If we want innovative universities and an innovative society we need to make a break with the past and start learning.