Business bid to steer courses

April 25, 2003

Employers and politicians want universities to play a greater role in economic growth - but at what cost?

Employers are calling for universities to be harnessed to local, regional and national economic needs, even if this comes at the expense of institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

Submissions to the Treasury-initiated Lambert review into business-university links include demands by business leaders for a greater role in course design and for reform of the research assessment exercise to balance a perceived bias towards purely academic excellence.

A submission by the Confederation of British Industry says: "The research work, training and other activities they [universities] undertake should start to [involve] business directly in helping to set priorities and delivering outputs in a form that can most easily be used by business. For example, by working with individual companies or groups of companies to develop bespoke courses which add value to the business and are delivered in a manner which fits in with the business work plan."

On research it says: "To provide a balance to the current bias towards academic excellence, university research groups should be rewarded according to the business and economic impact of their work in research assessments."

The Council for Industry and Higher Education submission says: "We must not build a paper knowledge economy based on a thriving qualifications industry rather than a demand-driven economy with learning that meets different business, skill and educational needs."

On research it says: "It is our suspicion that some modest scores in the RAE hide excellence in business networking. Being world class at accessing and transferring knowledge can be as worthy as developing and transferring that knowledge within a research-intensive university."

The government's higher education white paper, published in January this year, said that the findings of the Lambert review would represent "the next major step" the government would take towards enhancing business and higher education links. The Lambert review will feed into the Department of Trade and Industry's review of innovation.

The Lambert review's remit includes university governance and management and their effectiveness in supporting good research, knowledge transfer and relevant skills for the economy. A Leadership Foundation is to be established to take forward its recommendations.

The CIHE suggests that business managers should be brought into universities, leaving academics free to develop and provide "customer-led qualifications".

The submission says: "Some academics lament the general trend away from collegiality and consensus towards a more managerial style of governance.

But many outsiders who are concerned about efficiency and effectiveness are critical of what they see as the eagerness of certain academics to block changes."

The signs are that academics may find many of the employers' suggestions difficult to swallow.

The Association of University Teachers' submission highlights fears that commercial sponsorship of research could lead to suppression of findings and to pressure to support unethical commercial research. It wants a staff ombudsman to protect academic freedoms.

The AUT says: "Private sources of income should not interfere with a higher education institution's autonomy or the freedom of its staff to conduct research, to disseminate their research findings and to teach."

The review, announced by chancellor Gordon Brown in November 2002 and led by the former editor of the Financial Times, Richard Lambert, is due to report to the Treasury, the Department for Education and Skills and the DTI in the autumn.

Additional reporting by Phil Baty

KEY POINTS: WHO'S SAYING WHAT IN THEIR SUBMISSIONS

Confederation of British Industry

  • Key parts of a revised research assessment model should include: reducing the focus on research publication; linking assessment to a "forward-looking" business plan; and conducting rolling assessments to allow emerging or rapidly developing areas of activity to be assessed on different time scales
  • Intellectual property rights should always be agreed between business and university partners reflecting the balance of their inputs and not be imposed through some formula that, for example, could favour IP rights residing with universities
  • Universities should strengthen their role in supporting innovation in the service sector
  • Creation of a business-friendly website with information such as lists of university research expertise and project grants from research councils.

Council for Industry and Higher Education

  • DTI to consider creation of a national forum of business and academic leaders to address high-level research issues of joint concern
  • Universities should carry out annual evaluations of their research activities and make them available to businesses
  • The funding councils should develop metrics for rewarding university excellence in business and community networking
  • Vice-chancellors and principals should serve on company boards
  • Government should encourage employers to increase the number of students given work placements and projects, which should be assessed and accredited as part of the university curriculum, with part of the cost to businesses supported by tax credits
  • Universities UK should draw on business experience in developing the Leadership Foundation
  • UUK and the funding councils should ensure that management development is available to all university staff.

Institute of Directors

  • Universities should help disseminate opportunities for local businesses to work with them in a range of areas by establishing links with local business representative bodies and should advertise opportunities for cooperation in their business parks
  • Simplification of the range of government innovation and technology-transfer schemes, such as the Link programme and Faraday Partnerships, to aid clarity for businesses and universities
  • Reduced tuition fees for students studying subjects where there is a shortage of qualified employees, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and engineering
  • Universities should make more use of the Employment Service and local newspapers to advertise the types of graduates they are producing. They should also post graduates' CVs on websites.

Association of University Teachers

  • Interactions between higher education and business should continue to play a relatively small part in the work of higher education institutions
  • Universities should ensure that their policies on university-business relations require open contracts, effective conflict of interest guidelines and clear control of any academic policy implications of such arrangements by the academic board.

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