Pursuit of IP is ‘a distraction’

Hefce director says a broad range of engagement with business should be top of the agenda. Hannah Fearn reports

May 16, 2009

An obsession with generating income from intellectual property (IP) is distracting universities from the real issues when engaging with business, a senior funding council official has said.

David Sweeney, director for research, enterprise and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the world’s most business-engaged university, earned only about 3 per cent of its total income from the IP created by its academics even though it did exceptionally well in this area.

“[The pursuit of IP] is in my view a distraction from other areas that bring more income into universities, [such as] meeting the needs of business,” he told Times Higher Education’s Employer Engagement conference this week.

The drive to exploit the IP generated in higher education through product licensing and patents has been a priority for the Government. But Mr Sweeney instead stressed Hefce’s drive to encourage a broad range of different types of “engagements” with business, including the exchange of expertise between universities and employers and the upskilling of workers through higher education courses.

He said it was the council’s policy to ensure that by 2011, a third or more of all English higher education institutions should be involved in “shared investment” workforce-development schemes with employers, with industry and taxpayers sharing the bill. Hefce wants an additional 35,000 higher education entrants to be co-funded by employers.

Debate at the conference was heated, with Roger Brown, professor of higher education at Liverpool Hope University, arguing that industry was having too much influence over university teaching and research. He said that universities were losing sight of their wider role in society by pursuing a business agenda.

But Mr Sweeney insisted that while employer engagement was a critical part of universities’ work, teaching and research would not be compromised as a result.

“We all understand the need to have an underpinning. Nothing will persuade us to say that we’re undervaluing that part of our work,” he said.


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