Universities will lose their way if they put commercial activities ahead of the education of students

 

EDUCATIONWE ALL KNOW the kinds of disruption we don’t want: riots, looting, corruption – negative energy that causes damage to society. There is no condoning such ideas and actions.

But in the right context, disruptive ideas can have a positive side – innovation that challenges the status quo and creates new ways of doing things, often leading to new intellectual property and, ultimately, to new jobs.

The best universities can drive innovation in society. Innovation is inherent in excellent education, as it is in excellent research – it has been called the “third pillar” in the mission of universities. In the humanities as much as in the sciences, the best practitioners are innovators. They are creative in coming up with new ideas and turning them into reality. When James Joyce wrote Ulysses he was being disruptive in changing the way we think about the novel. Joyce was a true innovator. A century later he might have created Google.

The best universities educate their students with the capability to embrace innovation – and I don’t mean just technological innovation, but innovation that changes the world in all kinds of beneficial ways. Of great interest to us all is innovation that is commercially valuable; in our society, job-creating innovation is needed like never before. By virtue of the breadth of activity in our universities, high-value jobs are being created constantly.

Through innovation in education, universities generate income from sources other than the public purse – it is a myth that Irish universities are wholly publicly funded. The reality is, in Trinity for instance, less than half of our budget is a block grant from the exchequer.

One key consideration here is to grow employment for lecturers and teachers, demonstrators and researchers staff. Trinity now employs hundreds of lecturers from nonexchequer sources due to recent innovations in teaching. Meanwhile, innovation from research in science, engineering and technology is a key policy objective. Universities generate a stream of commercially exploitable technologies, and university research has given rise to intellectual property in many fields, such as in medical devices, drug discovery and ICT, all of which offer a potential basis for licensing or the formation of new businesses.

However, creating such commercial opportunities from original, disruptive and innovative research can be a slow burn, requiring sustained investment – global experience suggests the return on investment requires persistence and a strong faith in the global competitiveness of the (mainly young) people engaged in this activity. The real question is how best to build the most supportive environment – or ecosystem – for this innovation.

It must be a positive environment where their energies are released in a way that benefits them – the risk-takers – and then society as a whole; universities such as Trinity are vital to that innovation ecosystem. But they are only a part of the total ecosystem. We must not believe that universities can pump out fully formed campus companies.

A critical component of the whole innovation ecosystem is high-quality higher education. In my opinion it is crucial to recognise the core mission of universities in education and research, including imbuing students with a sense of ambition and a global perspective. And to have the confidence that they can create jobs as well as get a job.

My worry here is that budget cuts are materially affecting students as we struggle with inadequate funding to deliver an international-standard, research-led curriculum. You cannot teach an undergraduate student how to do independent scientific research when there is only €50 in the kitty to buy research consumables for his or her project.

The innovation eco-system also needs co-ordination of the regulatory and tax issues, legal frameworks and employment conditions, alongside the right kind of risk-taking culture in society. Our PhDs and postdoctoral researchers have a key role to play here. To advance this Trinity and UCD created the Trinity/UCD Innovation Academy working together to create business-aware graduates at PhD level, and funded in part by the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions.

We must remember what universities are actually intended to do and what they have done successfully as a cornerstone of society for generations. Universities are educational organisations dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge – so while they must be pro-commercial, they will lose their way if they put commercial activities ahead of the education of students by academics who are active in research at the frontier of their disciplines. The way to do it is to integrate the universities students directly into the innovation ecosystem by believing in the transformative power of higher education and research.

Only when we have a well-resourced and balanced ecosystem that fully values quality in education and research and allows it to bear fruit in innovation will we realise the kind of creative disruption that Ireland needs.


Patrick Prendergast took up office as provost of Trinity College Dublin on August 1st, 2011. He is a chartered engineer