Finnegan's Take

There is a movement afoot to bring the education and industry sectors closer together. The European Commission is on board, industry is thrilled and business schools see a market opportunity.

Some go as far as to suggest that industry should have input into university curricula.

The prevailing logic runs like this: Industry and innovation are essential to the creation of Europe’s ‘knowledge economy’; universities are capable of producing new knowledge; we should let industry tell universities what kind of knowledge to create and what kind of graduates to produce.

Then hey presto! We’ll all be on the same page and universities will become a sub-division of industry’s R&D departments churning out patents and marketable innovations.

As pointed out in today’s EurActiv interview with the European Youth Forum, there are clear threats to the independence of universities when academic programmes begin to resemble an industry wishlist.

But arguing against ever-tightening university-industry links is not merely about preserving academic independence for the sake of it. The whole idea runs counter to industry’s stated goals of making the education system serve the innovation agenda.

Universities have always been a breeding ground for innovation. They are a place where freethinkers develop the out-of-nowhere ideas that drive civilisation forward. (Apologies for the highfalutin truisms.)

But to harness an independent engine of growth is to neutralise it.

If industry and academia are to work together to solve the problems of the day, it effectively narrows the scope for the kind game-changing invention that can emerge from universities and industry. If both sectors are thinking about the same problems in the same way, the risk is that they will come up with the same types of answers – and that they will come up with fewer answers.

The business community is brilliant at developing marketable innovations which can deliver short and medium term returns. Universities need know no such constraints.

Business groups, governments and researchers can suggest that creative workers need a particular set of skills: graduates should be lateral thinkers, culturally nimble, interdisciplinary team players. Fine.

But if industry has too much influence on universities we’ll be left with a less diverse innovation machine. And that benefits nobody.

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  1. Good points. But also keep in mind that universities themselves may not be the engines of innovation which we all hope and wish they were. We may indeed need new types of institutions for innovation, and there hasn’t been a lot of progress here.

    Governments in Europe continue to hoard intellectual property produced by government-owned laboratories, which in turn produce research with little ability to commercialise it. Suggestions to ‘give’ these labs to universities depends on whether the university itself is the right place.

    We need to be confident that European universities are not offering degrees of questionable quality, doing research of even more questionable quality, by academics of mediocre temperament. Of the top 25 universities in the world, ranked by Shanghai, all are American except, in rank order: Cambridge, Oxford, Tokyo, UC London, Kyoto, Swiss Fed Institute Technology, Toronto. The first non-UK European university emerges at rank 42 (Paris UPMC).

    Irrelevance is the victory of complacency over innovation.

  2. Your post made me think about the difference between innovations and inventions again… And it seems important at a time when the policy world has gone positively bonkers over innovation. What does it mean, “innovation?” Monsanto pigs? The 8th edition of Krugman and Obstfeld?… These innovations are emphatically not the “out-of-nowhere ideas” that send societies hurtling onwards. Whatever leads the next great industrial-scale revolution is going to be so far beyond imagination and create such a break with the past that future generations will probably call it an invention. I took a little look at the histories of a couple so-called “inventions” (penicillin and the internet) and think they’re worth comparing, but I’ll leave that to you or any other inquisitve mind (this is, after all, a comment and not a dissertation)… Look at the interaction between “public” and “private” spheres; pay close attention to the role of what we now call the public domain; watch business play the roles of developper, distributor, partner, opportunist, and outright capitalist; try to imagine the different legal contexts as intellectual property regimes are strengthened across the 20th century; and please, please, please write me a book about how business, governement, and the educational system might be more than mere caricatures of what we assume them to be as they work together to steer us through the unknown!

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