The business of higher education

Fees or no fees, industry wants a financial stake in higher education. What does it mean for the sector as more money comes with corporate strings attached?

Justin Gleeson, manager (left) and Eoghan McCarthy, lead research assistant at AIRO All-Island Research Observatory, mapping facility at the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) at NUI, Maynooth. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES

Justin Gleeson, manager (left) and Eoghan McCarthy, lead research assistant at AIRO All-Island Research Observatory, mapping facility at the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) at NUI, Maynooth. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES

Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 02:00

As the debate over who will fund higher education hots up, one funding stream is quietly trickling into the sector. Hard cash from industry for key projects in higher education will become more and more important in the funding of our universities and Institutes of Technology (ITs) and, regardless of whether fees, loans, taxes or philanthropy play a part, corporate funding of higher education – and its inherent implications – is here to stay.

The Forfás Higher Education R&D Survey for the academic year 2010/11, published in November, suggests the percentage of R&D financed by industry in higher education is 3.9 per cent. This compares to a total OECD contribution of 6.3 per cent and the EU-27 contribution of 6.4 per cent. Anecdotally, that percentage has increased in the meantime, with some Irish universities reporting up to 10 per cent funding from industry for research.

The ITs are way ahead. According to Andrew Brownlee, director of research, development and innovation at Institutes of Technology, Ireland, industry collaboration could by now be worth up to 20 per cent of all funding to the sector.

“We put a lot of emphasis on industry collaboration, which can be traced back to the formation of the ITs in the 1970s when we were very much set up to meet industry needs such as training and upskilling,” says Brownlee. “We have expanded our remit to take on more responsibility through research and starting new businesses. We see ourselves as drivers of growth, working in partnerships with industry.”

The relationship between the ITs and business is so close that it is common to find industry partners on accreditation panels, advisory panels, in quality assurance and involved in the development of learning programmes. “Industry is involved in every aspect of IT operations,” says Brownlee.

It’s only going one way, he says. “If you look at the ambition of some ITs to merge and become technological universities, based on an industry-focused ethos, that will be reflected in the funding of institutions. Public funding will become increasingly linked to an ability to bring industry in the door.”


‘Creeping business agenda’
In the university sector, where research is more diverse and includes more academically focused projects, the relationship with industry is less straightforward.

Commentators such as Prof Ronnie Munck of the Defend the University campaign have spoken of “a creeping business agenda subverting the ethos of the university . . . and a reduction of the student search for knowledge and enlightenment to a set of narrow job-related skills.”

Nonetheless, the Higher Education Authority is in the process of developing an overall enterprise engagement strategy: it is Government policy to support more coordination and a stronger national policy direction when it comes to the interface of universities and industry. At Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), which was responsible for committing €300 million to industry collaborations last year (in a 2:1 split with corporate partners), the strategy is picking up pace, with a considerable increase in activity in the past couple of years.

Mark Ferguson, director of SFI, says centres of excellence, seven of which were launched in the past year, are the main engine driving industry engagement at the moment. “Centres of excellence in key research disciplines typically span more than one university or higher education institution. We mandate that 30 per cent of support must come from industry, and 10 per cent of this must be cash, as it’s a good measure of how well-aligned the research is to economic priorities. Most exceed this ratio.

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