Academics 'dismayed' by Glasgow exploitation

October 27, 2000

The culture clash between academic and commercialisation staff, rife in North America, has erupted at Glasgow University.

Glasgow has aggressively boosted commercialisation in recent years. In July, principal Sir Graeme Davies announced that research was netting the university £1,000 a minute.

Glasgow's research and enterprise (R&E) unit, which promotes commercialisation deals, is reportedly Europe's biggest. But university managers are trying to soothe researchers after a Financial Times article about the R&E unit, based on an interview with its strategic business development manager, Billy Harkin.

Academics were dismayed by suggestions that Mr Harkin's business team, half of whom were said to be consultants rather than university employees, could get millions from university deals.

One academic, who feared reprisals, said: "It came as a surprise to many of us to learn that we were being exploited to line the pockets of a few consultants. R&E seems to have lost sight of the fact that it needs to support staff and help to develop the intellectual wealth of the university for the benefit of the university, not for the benefit of people in R&E."

Glasgow's Association of University Teachers said it was concerned by the claims that a few individuals employed on a consultancy basis may make large sums of money on the back of publicly funded academic research.

"The AUT has consistently pointed out the huge gap in earnings between academic and related staff and their counterparts in other sectors, particularly industry," a local branch spokesperson said.

"It is clearly inappropriate for entrepreneurs to be able to exploit the intellectual advances of other researchers for personal gain. We would therefore urge the university to look at rewarding the staff it employs directly for their research and innovation."

Letters have been written to MSPs warning that if large sums are at stake, there is potential for conflicts of interest between consultants and universities.

The university administration is playing down the article (initially promoted on the R&E website but now withdrawn) as unfortunate over-enthusiasm from Mr Harkin, who is currently away from the university on business.

An administration insider said: "The guy in question is an incredibly dedicated, energetic and driven individual who puts tremendous energy into these projects (commercialising research). And sometimes his intense focus is achieved with insufficient attention to the diplomatic niceties of the work. He is at the gung-ho end of diplomacy."

Dugald Mackie, secretary of the university court, told the university senate that as the person ultimately responsible for R&E, he apologised unreservedly for the comments. He stressed that R&E was supervised by a review group that included deans and senate assessors.

He said: "The whole purpose of research and enterprise is to support - not supplant - the work of academic staff in the universityI I would be the first to admit that the enthusiasm of staff in research and enterprise may well lead to them appearing to get ahead of themselves at times."

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