Innovation Talk

Universities’ role extends far beyond business


Why do we have universities? What are they for and who are they meant to serve? It seems they are being pulled first in one direction and then in another, serving one master and then a second, with the expectation they will be able to respond to all competing demands and still manage to educate a few students in the process.

A statement issued a few weeks ago from Isme, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, prompted the questions, given its stridency in what it thought the universities were for. Clearly they were there to serve industry but were failing to do so miserably, it suggested. It criticised the main universities for their large classes, poor teaching methods and their “dry academic content”.

The main problem, as it saw it, was that despite trotting out what passed for entrepreneurial education the gap in the curriculum between the theory of being in business compared with the actuality of industrial practice was so wide that the higher education system was delivering graduates who were of little help to Irish companies. They were “unfit for work, ill-prepared for business life and error- prone”.

Its modest proposal for preventing the universities from being a burden on the taxpayer or country and for making them beneficial to the public was to stop paying lip service to entrepreneurship education and make it central to the curriculum. Specific structured training, workshops, mentoring and business networking were what was needed, along with on-the-job training while studying. In this way the universities would be fulfilling their actual role, to deliver “a rounded education” that included plenty of useful graduates with entrepreneurial skills and business savvy. Simple.

Of course one would then have to ask why do we need all those other faculties producing unfit-for-work graduates in areas such as literature, philosophy, science, classics and the general humanities clap-trap? Few of these will end up in business, so why bother educating them if the education did not serve business?

Science, of course, is arguably an exception because it can serve business enterprise in another way, providing cheap access to some of the finest scientific researchers and best laboratories available anywhere in the world. This is the role of the universities currently espoused by the Government, which sees university research faculties as a useful part of its “jobs plan”. Research funding flowing through Science Foundation Ireland into the seven new science centres being set up around the State all require significant private-sector involvement, with industrial partners taking an active role in the research. Their commitment to do so is linked to their financial contribution to the centres, which totals €100 million of the €300 million allocated in support of the work of the centres.

There is nothing wrong with asking industry to pay for some of the benefits it receives through access to cheap services from higher education. But serving the needs of industry should not be a primary role and it is madness to believe that academic/industrial research collaboration is necessarily going to lead to a wealth of jobs and spin-off companies.

So why then do we need to have a university system? We need it to deliver a major public good: well-educated young people. Only a fraction of all graduates will end up in business or in scientific research and we need graduates to deliver other services. The pursuit of new knowledge is central to any educational system and if the system does not deliver on this central role then it is not an educational system. Higher education can’t be reduced to being a useful service provider to business and industry, even if it is capable of delivering such a service. It has to be much more if we are to class ourselves as a civilised society.

It is time academia started to rear up against the falsehood that all expenditure on higher education should necessarily deliver a cash return, that investment in research needs to turn a buck or it isn’t worth doing. We desperately need jobs and new companies but we don’t need to achieve this by reducing and reducing again the State investment in our third- level institutions and then wondering why they don’t hit the top 100 in the world university rankings. It is a fallacious policy that says educational endeavour has to make money in order to allow higher education to pay its way.

Scholarship has a value in its own right, no matter what the academic faculty. If flogging that scholarship also happens to earn money and create jobs, then it is win-win but to expect that scholarship has to make money misses the point of what further education is all about.