Last week the government launched a plan. An education plan. Like all plans, it should be taken with enough salt to preserve a whale, but plans are needed if only to know what we should be doing. But plans should be coherent. A close examination of the plan suggests some worrying trends. We are creating an eduprenairship – full of ministerial hot air, conflating ideals that should not be conflated, slow to move, outdated, a hybrid nobody asked for which is hard to control and direct and prone to crashing. But it looks good and has a lovely dining trough, sorry car.
History and business are rarely taught or even studied together. That’s a pity. Economic history, as subject, has disappeared down the memory hole. What is more worrying perhaps is that the methods of historical analysis, careful source text reinterpretations, critical data analysis and a cool analysis, are not often applied to business. Enter Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian, to remind us why this ahistorical business analysis is a weak approach Continue reading
The Irish Times has today printed a laudatory, uncritical, advertorial on Knowledge Transfer Ireland. It is to me a thousand word puff piece, which contains little hard facts, no analysis, and little news. There is one piece of news, to which I will come.
The piece reads, and may be, as an extraction and repackaging, a collation of press packages. It lauds the new director, whom I am sure is great woman, as a secret ingredient; it praises the approach to getting business and academia talking; it praises the promise of a new way. You know the type of article.
KTI is appallingly error ridden. It is partial, poorly constructed and unfit for purpose. A casual usage would reveal that. I have two blogposts deconstructing it here and here. Any company relying on KTI to find appropriate partners would need its head examined. It doesn’t work.
There is one piece of news. The proposal to kickstart commercialisation now seems to be to give IP away for free. This is a rather radical proposal, and something that if it does go ahead should get the public accounts committee involved as a possible waste of state funds. Researchers in the higher education space get funded in four ways ; direct state grants to the institution, fee income (whether paid by the state or other) , research income (again from state, private, commercial and other sources) and miscellaneous sources such as benefactions, campus events and tourism etc. The bottom line is that there is and will remain a large state, that is taxpayer, involvement in all research. Even researchers in the most privately funded research lab have indirect state funding via their usage of college facilities.
Researchers create or surface knowledge. This may be valuable. It is always in part taxpayer supported. The plan now is to give away this public funded good to a private organization, with a clause that if it works they might eventually pay. This is similar to the idea of advance market commitments, but differs crucially in that it gives power to the firm. It is in effect yet another subsidizing of private wealth creation by public money. Presumably the argument is that these companies will create jobs, and thats a net benefit (although we see no cost benefit analysis having been undertaken).
Several issues arise here. First, most IP doesn’t pay in the short term. Many of the most valuable and socially impactful inventions and innovations take decades to percolate to use. There are massive lags in the R&D – innovation process. Companies may not be able to create in a meaningful timeframe any return on the granted IP, so the state would be at an absolute loss. Second, as we know in Ireland, companies are rather adept at using the provisions of the accounting code to show that they are flat broke, barely hanging on, not a bean etc, while delivering fat returns to the shareholders. Trust us they say.. Third, the issue of patents, or licensing of IP, is extremely complex. A recent Harvard study provides a good overview of the area. A conclusion they draw is that many patenting and IP protection activities are in fact rent-seeking, and that non patent approaches to fostering knowledge may in fact be superior. Patents and other forms of IP protection may in fact be stifling of innovation rather than what they are supposed to be doing, providing a barrier behind which it can take place. They suggest, with evidence prizes, with the majority of rewards being non-monetary. This would be cheap, would allow the IP to be made public, and would enhance research. Yes, there is a danger that the jobs or wealth created would not be in Ireland, but companies wilshing to use such knowledge would in all likelihood work as closely with the discoverers and researchers as possible, and that means locally.
KTI is a classic Irish situation. Its intentions are good, if fuzzy, and its execution execrable. We need to determine first what it is we want from industry academia collaboration, then we need to map in detail what is going on. That is much much more than counting patents.. Finally, we need to determine how best to ensure that gaps in these desiderata are filled. A poorly executed poorly populated database is nowhere required.
“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.
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.
Theres a rush to start universities on the road to fostering innovation and commercialisation. This is odd given that we, like every country, have an existing plethora of support already. The paper below suggests that the effect of university support may be very mixed and in fact may simply substitute support not add to it. So, no, not A Good Thing
tha abstract :
In this paper, we analyze the extent to which University-Level Support Mechanisms (ULSMs) and Local-Context Support Mechanisms (LCSMs) complement or substitute for each other in fostering the creation of academic spin-offs. Using a sample of 404 companies spun off from the 64 Italian Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics universities (STEM universities) over the 2000-2007 period, we show that the ULSMs’ marginal effect on universities\’ spin-off productivity may be positive or negative depending on the contribution offered by different LCSMs. Specifically, in any given region, ULSMs complement the legislative support offered to high-tech entrepreneurship whereas they have a substitution effect with regard to the amount of regional social capital, regional financial development, the presence of a regional business incubator, regional public R&D expenses as well as the level of innovative performance in the region. Results support the idea that regional settings’ idiosyncrasies should be considered for universities to develop effective spin-off support policies. This paper contributes to the debate on the evaluation of economic policies supporting entrepreneurship.
and an intersting takeaway from the conclusions ; given that we have already quite a well developed social structure, good financial conditions (really, in a global sense, we do), lots of existing incubators, and government support for R&D…
the marginal effect of ULSMs on spin-off productivity (and this finding holds for all of the different ULSMs taken into account in our analysis) decreases in contexts where the social capital index, the regional financial development index, the presence of a regional incubator, the government R&D expenses in the region, and the regional innovativeness index all have a positive marginal contribution to spin-off productivity (substitution effect). In these contexts, universities would be better off not pursuing incremental investments in ULSMs.
I really despair at times around the rhetoric in the university space. The meme at present is innovation. We are to be the engines of innovation, creating and educating a generation of innovators, leading to an Ireland that is the land of innovators and entrepreneurs. And yet, within the third and fourth level sector, for a variety of reasons, universities are highly conservative and increasingly bureaucratic institutions. I know of no way in which we can have innovation embedded in students without it being embedded in the universities, and we are far from that. Rather than being innovative, universities are increasingly conservative, strangled by bureaucracy, and fearful.
There are good reasons for universities to be conservative. As an institutional group, an industry if you were, they have been phenomenally successful in continuing to exist. Over 600+ years universities have continued to operate with a policy of slow change. That has served them well, in that they have not generally gone with the faddish flow. At times that has meant an increasing disconnect with the rest of the world but eventually both elements come back into alignment. So, innate conservatism as an institution is a feature of the beast.
I suggest that to foster innovation in students, if such even be possible, universities must themselves be innovative. That they are not. True innovation is disruptive, organizationally and sometimes financially costly, and challenging. We need to embrace this.
Innovative organizations act like venture capital companies internally. That is to say, they back lots of initiatives, knowing the great majority will fail miserably, some will limp along, a few do ok and a very few might be successes. Internally failure is punished by lack of promotion and ignoring of future ideas. Beyond that we face an external environment hostile to failure, dominated by a civil service wherein the path to promotion is paved with inertia. Imagine the carping wails from media commentators, publicity seeking minor political hacks and mandarins whose idea of innovation is to have grey socks instead of black were a university president to ruck up and say “yep, we failed big-time in this, and boy did we learn. We are going to be so much better for this“. They would tune out after the second word, not so much rushing to judgement as oozing prejudicially towards it. Until we see the monies spent on failed courses, bust initiatives, and imploding centers as investments and not “waste” then we cannot expect universities to take the plunge. This isnt a wasters charter – its a need for a new mindset in the finders and a courageous mindset in those funded.This runs internally also. So if we want to foster innovation in students we need to learn to accept massive, continual failure. Else, we simply will avoid the consequences by inertia. If you do nothing you run no risk of failing in doing something.
The disruptive element is also absent, perhaps for the reasons outlined. Looking at the university sector in ireland it is in most ways the same as it was when I entered as an undergraduate in 1981. To each of the following questions there are exceptions of course but we need to ask some hard questions across the board.
- For the most part irish academics work in disciplinary silos, where funding and promotion are vertical and where each silo is forced into a hobbesian war of all against all for a slice of the pie. We have very little horizontal interaction save by chance, and few academics work outside their area. Teaching and research are mostly within schools or maybe faculties. This is bureaucratically easy to manage but hardly fosters a sense of intellectual cross fertilization. Where are the cross disciplinary units? What are the ways we reward initiatives which seek to break traditional boundaries? Where are the chairs in Public Engagement with Art, in Science Communication, in Sustainable Finance….?
- We teach, more or less, as we have always done. Powerpoint (or Beamer if you are an economist who thinks that making things more difficult for oneself is a mark of a ma) has replaced the chalkboard but that it for the most part. Where are the flipped classrooms? Where is the drive to ensure student participation via the use of clickers and instant feedback? Where is the online presence, and not just in MOOCs? Where is the push for inquiry based learning? What role do we have for open learning?
- We run the danger, both from self interest and from fiscal interest, in skewing more and more towards one side of the dyad. Universities are or should be about teaching and research. As less and less, proportionally, money comes following students a source of funds that is more and more tapped is that for research. Combine that with the reality that in the modern environment research is the key to mobility (as I think it should be) and the skew is in. But research alone is sterile and teaching without research is mere scholasticism. Where is the innovation in ensuring that both are honoured at the individual and organizational level? Where are the teaching intensive tracks, not the punitive approaches taken for “failed” researchers that we see in the UK and Australia but ones that allow gifted teachers to excel and be rewarded (while still doing some research just as even the most gifted researcher must face a student now and again)?
- We typically teach towards the same rhythm. No, universities don’t close for the summer – such sneering ignorance is typical of those who see third level as a kind of second level school for kids who can drink, but hears as little resemblance to reality asking why a radio show is only on 2h per week or why parliament sits only X days per week. Things happen other than at the undergraduate lecture space. That aside, we teach to two semester per annum for historical reasons. Ensuring that staff get one semester free from teaching ensures, if we manage it, that there is research undertaken. But we must ask where are the credit based and flexible learning courses? Where are the accelerated degrees as a flipside to that? We need to consider students as self actuating adults. Some may wish to speed through an education, others may need or desire to take things at a slower pace. We don’t, typically, facilitate that as part of the mainstream. Where is the granting of credits for demonstrated transferable, life and soft skills not gained in the formal setting?
- We are poor at integrating those inside and outside the groves of academe. Universities are part of society and vice versa. While there are many many adjuncts delivering courses and sometimes engaging in research, we seem to eschew innovative flexible engagement. Where are the formal professors of practice, outside the medical schools? Where are the fractional posts, the joint appointments of academics with “industry”, the seamless engagement of society with universities and viceversa?
- We deliver courses in silos. There are some wonderful cross institutional initiatives but where are the efficiencies in delivering basic transferable skills across units instead of silo based approaches? Where indeed are the structures that allow students to transfer within not to mind between institutions as they themselves learn their interests and skills?
- We stifle ourselves with bureaucracy, morphing into managerialism. This is confused with management. Faced with a demand for something from the external environment the natural reaction is to create a committee, to introduce a form… or sometimes worse- Foreign travel in TCD requires a form to obtain a form which then requires a form thereafter to obtain refunding where the existence of the first form is not allowed as evidence that the activity was sanctioned….Where is the innovation in reducing bureaucratic overhead and slimming down plethoras of committees?
- The external environment is ever more intrusive, with the slow imposition of a form of organizational structure which worked well, for a while, in early 20th mass industry is as well suited to managing a modern knowledge organization as a sea lion is to playing the viola. Yet, faced with this, where is the innovation in how internally universities are organized and how collectively they engage coopetitivly? Faced with an external environment where a prominent public official can use the analogy of feeding bowls for funding, what have Irish universities done to both decry this language and to respond to the concerns which might animate it, no matter how distasteful it is worded?
- We look to the international student body as a source of funds but we are fearful of innovation in seeking these. There is a steady stream of vice presidents for global affairs streaming to India and China to seek to get students. Meanwhile, we sit on the edge of a continent of 500m people, ignoring them for the most part, hoping they will come along. We end up showing where Ireland is on a map when we go to seek students in Chindia. We dont need that when dealing with people who know where we are and who mostly dont think we are too bad in our When was the last time a major push was made to engage Polish or Italian undergraduates to come to Ireland? Where is the encouragement of formal joint degrees with Slovenian or Portuguese institutions? Where are the joint appointments of faculty?
I could go on. If we do not allow, encourage, cajole and force ourselves into allowing innovation, with the concurrent failures that it will entail, in the creation and delivery of our own products, how can we be taken seriously as a force for innovation in society? Modern technology, massification of education, reduced external funding and greater international competition should force us to look at ourselves. The fad de jure for making universities lead the push in society for greater innovation is that – a fad. But the need for organizations facing the forces that Universities face to themselves become more innovative, or at least more open to same, that is longer lasting. In a budgetary and organizational crisis we can hunker down or face the challenge. We seem to be hunkering down.