Shake up system before getting down to business

February 4, 2000

A cultural sea-change is needed if universities are to produce great entrepreneurs as well as world-class academics, writes Stephen Court.

Higher education is at the heart of the government's blueprint for the economic future of the United Kingdom. But since coming to power, Labour's leaders have stood over the universities like fretful schoolteachers, trying to cajole gifted but wayward pupils to do better. Meanwhile, recent research shows that they have some way to go if they are to foster a more entrepreneurial culture among university staff.

The government has made itself clear. Competitive survival for the UK depends on building an economy driven by exploiting our knowledge, skills and creativity - a great deal of which originate in higher education. Universities may have world-class science, technology and engineering, and the skills and creativity they develop may be outstanding. But this does not mean much if the resources they generate are not being turned into jobs and wealth.

The government is spending increasing amounts to kickstart university-linked wealth creation, with initiatives such as the Science Enterprise Challenge, the University Challenge Fund, the Teaching Company Scheme, and the joint University of Cambridge-Massachusetts Institute of Technology enterprise institute. Perhaps more significantly, recurrent funding for universities under the Higher Education Reach-out to Business and the Community Fund, the "third leg", has recently started.

But something more than nagging from the prime minister and the chancellor, plus an array of mainly short-term funding packages, is needed to have the desired impact on campuses.

Yes, vice-chancellors and university mission statements are generally economy-friendly; several institutions have industrial liaison officers to promote business links; science parks and university spin-off companies are increasing. Yet at campus level there is little evidence of widespread entrepreneurial activity by staff, and attitudes to governement exhortations are, at best, lukewarm.

Research carried out jointly by the Association of University Teachers and the Institute of Education at the University of London (to be published this spring) found that the proportion of academic and academic-related staff who spent more than five hours a week on activities related to the economy was small.

About one in four academics have been involved in developing business ventures or income-

generation activities outside their main responsibilities of teaching, research and administration. About one in five have had contact with a science park, business incubator unit or similar enterprise at their institution. The levels of activity reported by staff in science, technology and engineering was about double those for staff in other areas.

Staff with links to business said these have benefited their teaching, but only one in three said research linked to the research assessment exercise has benefited.

Although there was strong support for making university research, teaching and consultancy accessible to local or regional businesses, fewer than half the respondents agreed with Prime Minister Tony Blair that universities needed a greater entrepreneurial spirit. In general, academics at post-1992 universities were more pro-business and more business-active than colleagues in the old universities.

Some said they have too many demands on their time to take on another commitment. Others reported actual or potential conflicts relating to involvement in business links. The strong tradition of early, widespread and unfettered publication of research results was often seen to be at odds with the desire by commercial sponsors to delay - or even suppress - publication.

Only a small proportion of res-pondents said their institutions recognised work linked to the economy when conducting appraisal. Institutions attached greater value to research that might result in a better RAE rating, rather than applied research relating to business.

If universities and their staff are to play a greater part in economic life, then these issues need to be tackled:

Too many competing demands on staff time and resources

The conflict between academic freedom and commercial confidentiality

The lack of understanding between university staff and businesses about the other's priorities and goals

The need for institutions to change their employment practices to support and recognise staff involved in business-related work.

Finally, funding priorities for applied research should be reassessed. It is encouraging that the next research assessment exercise will give full recognition to work related to the needs of commerce and industry.

Stephen Court is senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers.

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