Universities, Business and the Public Good

This is a version of an opinion piece published in the Irish Independent 19 December, co-authored with Ronaldo Munck

“Clearly, the education system fulfils a vital role in society that extends well beyond the utilitarian one of satisfying enterprise’s needs for skills or research. Universities are obviously a vital public good, making a crucial contribution to the intellectual, cultural, social and economic well-being of the country…we should not view the requirement for workplace skills and the cultivation of the intellect as some zero sum game”.

This statement comes not from any starry-eyed academic in an ivory tower, nor even from the recently formed campaign to defend the Irish University from ‘commercialisation’ (http://defendtheuniversity.ie). Rather, this stirring call comes from IBEC, specifically Tony Donoghue IBEC’S Head of Education and Innovation Policy at a conference held at DCU a couple of years ago.  Yet the dominant discourse in the media, business circles and most university administrations is for the need for universities to orient more or less exclusively to ‘business needs’. This elides into the need for a more ‘enterprising’ university. Both demonstrate an (wilful?) ignorance of what it is a university does and can do. It is reductionist in the extreme, seeing the sector as having only one role – to provide training for the de jure demands of the business sector that shouts loudest.

What lies behind this new orthodoxy which no longer sees the university as a public good?  In what ways can and should universities be responsive to business needs? We must first distinguish between diverse domains; such as applied research in advanced technologies, upskilling, student placements and so on as they are all very different.

Universities and businesses occupy particular spaces within society. Both, we suggest, would be seen in a positive light were they to be seen as working for the betterment of society at large. Few working at universities would have a problem with a whole range of interactions with business.  It is a well-established practice to have placements in ‘industry’ whether for business studies students, or those in engineering or computing. Research collaboration with industry, for example, in the biomedical area might make sense so long as full economic costing was applied. Engagement in these direct senses with industry in the arts and humanities may be more distant, but that does not make these areas of study are less valuable to society. Recent UK research suggests that three years out more Social Science and Humanities graduates are in paid employment than their STEM compatriots.

Most people at universities would like to be seen as ‘enterprising’ but that does not mean we are all budding entrepreneurs.  Innovation and entrepreneurship is something we are, or are supposed to be, all in favour of fostering.  But there is a lamentable lack of clarity on what this means in practice. Universities are expected to foster and support innovation and enterprise with time, money and materials, diverting these from existing teaching activities already under funding and staffing pressure.  It is as though through a sleight of hand research became innovation, then innovation became entrepreneurship, and now entrepreneurship becomes working for the private sector.

Universities are complex organizations. Aiming them at the demands of the market alone suggests a misconception that they are, in essence, aimed at private gains by individual graduates and companies. But the reality is that university education creates both a public and a private good. University education is complex. It has boundaries on how many can be admitted at any given time and thus the provision of education services is excludable. Within these boundaries, however, it is mostly non-rivalrous, in that each student can obtain their education without detriment to others gaining theirs. However, the outcomes of a university education, such as a more skilled workforce, and a more literate and critically engaged population are closer to public goods. Until we have a public debate on how to deal with these two elements at the same time we will continue to flail around. One thing we know from decades of economics is that it is not possible to regulate, manage and evaluate goods which are of different types as though they were the same. That is what some are trying to do in higher education and it is bound to fail if it does recognise the complexity of the business we are in.

There are, thus, clear limits to what universities can, or should, offer the business world.  Educators not entrepreneurs have to write the syllabus. Business persons have a role, via their membership of society, but no more and no less than artists or the socially excluded.  Universities cannot offer cheap intellectual labour paid by public funding to build private profit margins.  They cannot just create entrepreneurs even though they might, of course, provide skills and techniques for successfully driving a business. Indeed the skills needed to manage businesses are those that a well-funded, well- managed, well- structured university would provide to all students – perseverance, analytical capacity, resilience and inquisitiveness. Students in modern universities develop these and more, such as skills on knowledge acquisition, in information processing and interpersonal skills.  It is up to business to provide the specialist training it requires after that.  In the public or voluntary sectors other specific skills will be learnt on the job as well as building on some basics gained in education.

Universities must serve society as a whole and not a particular sector.  Chasing what may be myopic sector specific skill shortages in private enterprise with public money is not education  Nor is engaging in what may be a Faustian pact whereby universities, producing public goods, become dominated by private interests through funding lines emergent from private enterprise due to a fall-off in public investment. A long term view would lead us to more structured engagement between universities and the business world which also acknowledges, celebrates and respects the different purposes of both.

Universities are not business incubators and they are not beacons of innovation.  They simply do not have the capacity to deliver an either front.  But then we need to ask what it is that universities provide if they do not simply exist to fulfil business needs.  Put simply, for a business the much talked about bottom-line is profit.  Yet today it is widely accepted that there is a triple bottom line: economic, social and environmental.  Universities necessarily take the long view (they have been around for quite a while) and need to think in terms of social sustainability and not just the annual balance sheet.  Business needs are part of that calculation but there are other interests at play.  Civil society embraces not just business but also a whole range of community, cultural and social interest groups.  For example universities could engage in a debate around Ireland’s national development prospects in which business would play a key role but other social interests would also need to be involved.  Universities best serve their purpose- and also business needs- if they have a strong sense of independent thinking and promote healthy debate on key issues of the day.

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