Burn down the straw man

Mistrust of 'business' is misplaced: treated with respect, it can help to create knowledge, explains David Docherty

August 6, 2009

First Secretary Lord Mandelson accepted last week that bringing university policy into a department with the word "business" in its title had "not thrilled everyone".

What an understatement. The creation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in June resulted in fascinatingly intemperate language revealing, sadly, that for too many people, C.P. Snow's culture war is alive and kicking - only for "science" substitute "business and innovation".

The BIS debate reveals a deep unease that the critical, reflective and social value of university teaching and research is devalued by being embedded in a department led by business.

This is profoundly concerning, not least because the straw man of "business" - portrayed as a one-dimensional, undifferentiated profit machine - lurks in the ideological and psychological undergrowth of many of the criticisms. This straw man must be immolated, for the good of the UK and its universities.

There is no such thing as "business". There are businesses, large and small, ranging from corner stores to massive multinationals with global reach. And, equally, there is no such thing as a university. There are universities and colleges, but within them there are generalists and specialists with a wide range of different agendas. If we focus too heavily on applying the labels of "business" or "university", we will miss something infinitely more interesting, namely the way in which businesses and universities interact to create knowledge.

Sophisticated businesspeople want to engage academics in complex ways. Of course, there are those who want oven-ready graduates and research aimed at short-term business requirements, but these will only carry the day if faux-purist academic laagers are thrown up around research and teaching.

A recent Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) report on the value of knowledge exchange provided 150 case studies where research teams from both parties felt they had gained valuable results. The report calls for the research councils to fund public spaces where fundamental problems can be jointly identified. Businesses are at their most comfortable when academics recognise that they are not just fund managers or exploited grunts.

Although the linguistic shift from technology transfer to knowledge exchange has gone some way towards moving the debate beyond haggling over intellectual property, there remains a residual notion that each side has its knowledge and shares it using some kind of exchange-rate mechanism. But businesses are really calling for a double-helix model of knowledge creation, with each intertwining strand creating some new research life. Universities can pursue such basic research with business without losing touch with the idea of undertaking research for its own sake.

There are barriers to such partnerships, and researchers will come up against commercial realities: different lead times; different valuation systems; and, frankly, different career values. But the real barriers seem to lie in suspicions that university intellectual property will not be properly valued in an instrumentalist model of collaboration.

These concerns could be addressed by knowledge creation and exploitation maps that chart how knowledge is created and detail the subsequent ownership, control and exploitation of the intellectual property.

So much of knowledge creation is down to academics developing relationships on the ground. The role of senior management in universities, CEOs in businesses and funding bodies must surely be to find ways of fostering these explorations.

There are many examples of research that tried to solve one problem and failed, but created the conditions for the solution of a bigger issue down the line. A way must be found to reward such partnerships.

As the CIHE report shows, the relationship between businesses and universities has come a long way since the stereotypes of yesteryear, but there is obviously a long way to go yet, as the reaction to BIS showed.

The best place to start is by developing a fundamental mutual respect. Everything else is (a great deal of) detail.

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