Sunday 26 May 2019

John Kelly: Overriding mission of our universities is to educate, not to carry out R&D for business

THE 'Times Higher Education' report on the funding of university research by business presents a table of the 30 countries it surveyed, which shows Ireland taking up the bottom position. This table gives the "average value per researcher" in US dollars, and the number one position is occupied by the Republic of Korea at $97,900 (€73,575), with Singapore second at $84,500. The USA comes in at 14th with $25,800, Germany at 19th with $19,400, the UK at 26th with $13,300 and Ireland at the bottom with $8,300.

It seems that in each country only a selection of universities was surveyed, and in Ireland these were the four universities of the National University of Ireland – that is Cork, Dublin, Galway and Maynooth, along with Trinity, thereby omitting DCU, UL and the nine Institutes of Technology.

But the times are changing, and in these last number of years the Government has increased its emphasis on the importance of industrial innovation in university research and has changed the mandate of the Science Foundation Ireland, removing its restriction to fund only basic research.

Earlier this month, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton announced the investment of €40m in pharmaceutical research to be coordinated by UL, with €30m coming from the SFI and €10m from 17 industry partners; and last year the Government committed €1.2m in cloud computing research, to be coordinated by DCU in cooperation with UCC, AIT and NUIM.

The universities in Korea and Singapore are mostly private institutions, established by the leading industries in those countries and confining their disciplines to industrial-related topics, particularly engineering, computing and the sciences.

They are, in effect, the research laboratories of those industries and are exclusively and very successfully engaged in research and development projects. These universities did not feature in the top 200 in the 'Times Higher Education' overall world university rankings. In general, the universities in Ireland and in Europe do not engage in research and development, though most certainly engage in applied research which may lead to industrial R&D, and it often does.

There has been increased emphasis on applied research in the Irish university research world, and in the engineering disciplines, on having greater links with industry. The Irish Academy of Engineering in a recent report, noting that over the previous five years the Government's research funds had gone 85pc to the sciences, 8pc to engineering and the balance of 7pc to the humanities and social sciences, and acknowledging the vital role of research in the humanities and social sciences, called for a re-focussing of the country's research priorities towards applied research to stimulate enterprise development and job creation.

It made specific recommendations to the universities, to industry, to the funding agencies and the Government, and since its publication in 2011 a number of these have been implemented.

This report brings into discussion the big academic question: what is the mission of the university in the modern world? Is it to educate the youth of the country, a la Cardinal Newman, or to have a key role in the country's economic development – or can it do both?

The far eastern countries would appear to have gone in a major way for the national economic mission, while we here in Europe are in a state of great change, due principally to the massive increase in student numbers in recent years and in the difficult financial environments, but our universities are still holding on to their role as educators of our youth.

I believe we still have an appreciation of the enormous importance of the humanities and social sciences, and of the overriding necessity of maintaining the focus on the education of the individual student in our universities, whatever the discipline, and irrespective of where the funding is coming from.

Dr John Kelly is Professor Emeritus, University College Dublin, and founder editor of the international journal, 'Industry & Higher Education'

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss