Loose ends in bonding sessions with business

March 19, 1999

The competitive commercial ethos is at odds with traditional collegial co-working, argues Stephen Court

The government wants universities to play a much bigger role in creating a strong and competitive British economy. But how far is this the right direction for universities?

New Labour has lost no time in providing much-needed investment in infrastructure and pump-priming to get results out of universities. The comprehensive spending review has yielded more than Pounds 1 billion extra public and private funding for the higher education science base. There is a plethora of schemes, such as Foresight, the Teaching Company Scheme, the University Challenge Fund, the Science Enterprise Challenge, and the Higher Education Reach Out Fund.

Universities are being seen as key economic partners for the regional development agencies, which are starting up in England (except London) in April.

Higher education funding councils are laying more emphasis on institutions working with business. Education secretary David Blunkett has said he wants to maximise commercial exploitation of university research and make graduates as employable as possible.

The impetus to be more business-minded is not just top-down. Many universities are committed - in their mission statements, at least - to playing a part in the local, regional and national economy.

Is there anything wrong with this approach? Academics, particularly scientists, want to see the fullest use for their ideas and inventions, especially when they see other countries reap the benefit of homegrown originality and research. Anything honest that brings extra revenue into institutions must be welcomed.

Higher education receives about Pounds 1 billion a year in recurrent research funding from the public purse; institutions have a duty to be good stewards of this investment. And if the university on the doorstep holds some of the answers to revitalising the local economy, then of course it is right to tap into it.

Nevertheless, there is room for scepticism about the yoking of universities to economic aims. It is important to remember that universities are primarily about students and those who teach them. It would be to their lasting detriment if institutions lost sight of the broader, all-round education and values they have traditionally offered. If what happens to research is anything to go by, it is likely that more established academics will be drawn into entrepreneurial activities. This will leave yet more undergraduate teaching to junior staff, who are often part-time graduate teachers still working on their doctorates.

There appears to have been little effort to investigate academics' views about entrepreneurship and how that will affect teaching, research and administration. There is pressure enough to get these three areas properly covered. Working on consultancies and getting involved with companies may earn Brownie points and cash, but it will not count towards a high and lucrative research assessment exercise rating. The new Hero Fund, worth nearly Pounds 50 million in its first three years, will support academics with business links, but it is small beer compared with income from RAE-linked funding. One problem for institutions with the government's hands-on approach is that so much of the new money is earmarked, leaving them little room to make their own decisions about funding allocations. The initiatives are a step in the right direction, but what about adequate, long-term money for institutions to deal with an increase in entrepreneurial activity - particularly setting up units to deal with contractual and intellectual property issues, and providing initial investment capital?

In hitching up with industry, institutions should remind themselves that number one on the government and business agenda is competitiveness. Universities may find themselves putting much staff time and resources into joint ventures only for their commercial partners to pull the plug if profits are slow to materialise. The business need for confidentiality is at odds with the academic tradition of early, widespread dissemination of research. What about the conflict of interest for academics whose commercial concerns may be undermined by unwelcome research results?

Universities, encouraged by their regional development agencies, may well find themselves competing against each other.

Ironically, for all the emphasis on education leading to a more inclusive society, market universities will not be able to transcend the values of a market economy. Universities should take care to guard their autonomy, the freedom of their teachers and researchers, and the future of higher education as a social good in the widest sense.

Stephen Court is senior research officer, Association of University Teachers.

Research, pages 30-33

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