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.
Irish 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
Incubators 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”
One 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?
We 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.
It 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.
How 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”
What 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.
Lets 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.