Asian leaders warn against ‘prescriptive’ innovation policies

Sector leaders say governments should ‘nudge’, not direct, university commercialisation efforts

April 19, 2021
Source: iStock
Dapeng, one of the few vestiges of old Shenzhen

Asian university leaders have warned governments that overly prescriptive research policies will hamper innovation.

Thomas Kvan, founding dean of the School of Design at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), told the Times Higher Education Innovation and Impact Summit that higher education institutions had a key role in helping to save societies from what he described as the “middle-income trap”.

Having witnessed the mushrooming of SUSTech’s home city of Shenzhen from a community of about 20,000 people to a metropolis of 20 million, Professor Kvan cited challenges such as a widening income gap and unaffordable housing that had arisen as places such as Shenzhen developed from being a poor factory town where the average education was barely at secondary level to a society that now needed postgraduate researchers.

“We want to help build a broader, wider economy – and ensure that the benefits of that economy are well distributed,” he said.

However, Professor Kvan said governments had to realise that they could not micromanage this process.

“Government can work in two ways – it can nudge, or it can prescribe,” he said. “Many policymakers only see their role as being prescriptive. But nudging works better than prescription.”

In an era when universities are being judged on their social impact, Professor Kvan stressed that academics should be more than just troubleshooters.

“Universities should not be problem-solvers, but opportunity-seekers – and maybe problems can be solved along the way,” he said. “But if you are only doing problem-solving, then you don’t see progress. You need blue-sky thinking also.”

Chandrika Wijeyaratne, vice-chancellor of the University of Colombo, said Sri Lanka was still at the “fledgling stages” of building “private-public collaborations” and coordinating with the government on research.

“We have to identify problems, and then address how to solve them,” she said, adding that university research was just the “first step” in gathering data about social challenges.

While the state was needed to turn research into usable public policy, “very prescriptive rules by the government will cramp new ideas”, she warned.

In general, Sri Lankan universities conducted research, which was then passed to parliament for potential consideration and use. “The government sometimes does things in parallel, and they do not join up,” she said.

In her domestic context – a low- to middle-income country where per capita gross domestic product is less than £3,000 – universities have a vital role in informing governments and the media on issues such as public health and disaster management.

She stressed that developing Asian countries needed the tools to find their own fixes. “Western philosophy may deter finding local solutions,” she said. At the same time, she urged the global higher education community to rethink how to engage with lower-income countries.

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