Innovation Talk: University life is about more than the ‘I’ word

It takes more than innovation to deliver a third-level institution, and university life is not only about technology and research


The “I” word has become a major talking point for Ireland’s university sector. Third-level campuses are determined to show that innovation is a central part of what these institutions are all about. Trinity has its Innovation Academy and last November launched a strategy for innovation and entrepreneurship. Dublin City University has its Invent innovation and enterprise centre. University College Dublin has UCD Innovation. And the list goes on.

Use of the “I” word has become particularly persistent over the past few years, not least because of policy changes brought in by the current Government. It wants to see a return on State investment in research, with discoveries being translated into products, services, jobs and companies. If you want to align your development strategy with Government thinking, then the “I” word had better be to the fore.

But how do you know whether you really are being innovative and whether your innovation strategy actually delivers results? One way of doing this is to study an institution’s performance using a range of metrics and then decide whether it all works. You might then compare some of the relevant metrics for one institution against those from another institution, something that up until recently was difficult to achieve.

All this changed within the last fortnight, however, with the publication of the Higher Education Authority’s rating scheme in a document entitled Towards a Performance Evaluation Framework: Profiling Irish Higher Education. The authority developed a profiling method to capture key data that can help define how a university, institute or college is performing.

This is not a ranking system like the Times Higher or the QS systems, the authority points out. Rather it is meant to be a way to assess whether the strategic mission adopted by an institution is actually being met as demonstrated by its metrics.

So while institutions can be compared metric for metric, the profiling system will also allow the authority to decide if the “Mission-based Performance Compact” agreed between the institution and the authority is being met. These compacts are being finalised between the parties at the moment, but the talking will end and the real battle will start in the 2014-15 academic year. Up to 10 per cent of an institution’s budget will be used to incentivise a good performance in meeting the terms of the agreed compact. If you don’t deliver the goods, then your budget gets whittled down.

There are concerns about how this leaves the innovation-intense institutions, with one view being that the performance profiling system can’t actually measure the level of innovation. There are hard metrics for innovation but they don’t fully gauge innovative performance on a campus-wide basis, according to some commentators. The system does measure spin-out companies formed, patents and licences for technology issued, and research income from some bodies including Science Foundation Ireland and the EU funding programmes. There are other sources that reflect on innovation, however, including funding from the private sector.

Kicking around the numbers does not deliver a fair assessment of the level of innovation achieved, some university staff argue. The authority also says, however, that the system is a work in progress and that it is open to changes in the metrics used and other adjustments that will make the system work better and deliver a fairer result. There will be some catfight if the authority decides to start trimming back some of the variable 10 per cent.

There is widespread agreement among all parties, however, that the system cannot be allowed to become a crude national ranking system that allows one university to crow about being number one or causes institutions to start scrapping over who is second or who is fourth.

It takes more than innovation to deliver a third-level institution, and university life is not only about technology and research. There is student experience, later access to employment and other factors that make an institution a place where you want to be. And there is also some satisfaction that the new system developed by the authority is clear and transparent and one based on hard data. The heavy dependence on individual references as seen in the straight ranking systems has always been a limiting factor.

Aside from all that, the notion that innovation is somehow new and allied only with technology and business really misses the point. Participation in third level was always and ever has been about education, research and innovation in all faculties, not just science and business.

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