Saturday 16 December 2017

Independent thinking is best way for universities to serve us

Universities
Universities

'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 stirring call 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', but from IBEC -- specifically from Tony Donoghue, its head of education and innovation policy, at a conference held at DCU a couple of years ago.

It seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The dominant discourse in the media, business circles and even most university administrations is for the need for universities to orient more or less exclusively to 'business needs'. This merges into the need for a more 'enterprising' university.

Both views seem to demonstrate a wilful ignorance of what a university does and what it can do. They are reductionist in the extreme, seeing the sector as having only one role -- to provide training for the demands of the business sector that shouts loudest.

Few of those 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.

In the arts and humanities, engagement with industry may be more distant, but that does not make these areas of study are less valuable to society. Recent UK research suggests that after three years, more Social Science and Humanities graduates are in paid employment than their science and technology compatriots.

What lies behind this new orthodoxy which no longer sees the university as a public good? 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.

Most people at universities would like to be seen as 'enterprising' but that does not mean we are all budding entrepreneurs. We are all in favour of fostering innovation and enterprise. But there is a lamentable lack of clarity on what this means in practice.

Universities are expected to do such fostering with time, money and materials diverted from existing teaching activities which are already under funding and staffing pressure.

It is as though, through some sleight of hand, research became "innovation", then innovation became "entrepreneurship", and now entrepreneurship becomes working for the private sector.

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. All very different.

Universities are complex organisations. Aiming them at the demands of the market alone suggests a misconception that they are, in essence, there to provide private gains for individual graduates and companies. But the reality is that university education creates both a public and a private good.

University education has limits on how many can be admitted at any given time. Within these boundaries, however, it is mostly non-rivalrous; in that each student can obtain their education without detriment to others gaining theirs.

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 do know from decades of economics is that it is not possible to regulate, manage and evaluate goods which are of different kinds as though they were the same. That is what some are trying to do in higher education. 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 people 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 "create" entrepreneurs, even though they might well provide skills and techniques needed for successfully driving a business. Indeed, the abilities required 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, information processing and interpersonal skills. It is up to business after that to provide the specialist training which it specifically requires.

Universities must serve society as a whole, 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 from private enterprise due to a fall-off in public investment.

A long-term view would lead to more structured engagement between universities and the business world which 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 that means we have to ask what it is that universities provide if they do not simply exist to fulfil business needs?

Put simply, for a business the famous 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.

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 -- as well as business needs -- if they have a strong sense of independent thinking and stimulate healthy debate on key issues of the day.

Brian Lucey is Professor of Finance at TCD and Ronnie Munck is Professor of Sociology at DCU.

Irish Independent

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