Uncreative friendship

April 27, 2001

The relationship between the university and commerce poses a threat to long-term innovation, argues Jonathan Rutherford.

"In the knowledge economy," prime minister Tony Blair declared recently, "entrepreneurial universities will be as important as entrepreneurial businesses, the one fostering the other."

New Labour's response to the knowledge-driven economy, the 1998 competitiveness white paper, envisaged the market transforming universities from unproductive consumers of public money into hubs of economic competitiveness and regional development, generating clusters of new businesses.

Peter Mandelson, then secretary for trade and industry, contributed the new Labour line: "Knowledge and its profitable exploitation by business is the key to competitiveness." One main barrier to success, he said, was a lack of entrepreneurs to turn creativity, talent and a "world-class science base" into saleable products and services. The new competitive culture demanded charismatic risk-takers who could innovate, generate ideas and discover opportunities. A year later, Mr Mandelson resigned.

Universities UK was anxious that the government should continue to promote the white paper. It need not have worried. Under Stephen Byers, the Department of Trade and Industry came out with the enterprise, skills and innovation white paper, bursting with entrepreneurial rhetoric.

The key question of the nature of business involvement in higher education is whether companies just see it as a one-way street; whether a wholesale entrepreneurial culture and the imposition of the "business mind" on universities is a good thing - not just for universities themselves, but for enterprise and industry.

The latest white paper offers the example of Unipart Group's online learning system for employees. Chief executive John Neill said it would help staff to learn "at the speed of light". Short-term cost-effective gain is the priority. Corporate universities provide an education sourced from knowledge generated internally and structured in response to immediate business needs. The long-term cost of depending on such a system, tied to existing products and capital investment, is the steady depletion of fundamental knowledge. There is an organisational constraint on new learning. Without long-term, disinterested thinking, where is it to be replenished?

For all the talk of creativity, imagination and innovation, both politicians and corporate culture have a narrow conception of these human attributes. The humanities are entirely absent from a rhetoric that promotes a rather punishing notion of learning as a duty measured by performance indicators.

By using knowledge in a constantly self-referencing way, without exposure to new and different, even highly critical, paradigms of thinking, a business remains insular. With the increasing importance of knowledge-driven and creative industries, a culture of procedure-driven anti-intellectualism becomes a handicap.

Universities have been castigated as ivory towers divorced from the real world. It is a prejudice that the governing classes of the past two decades have heartily endorsed. As a consequence, they have, in effect, destroyed universities' self-management. In headlong retreat from their role as trustees of publicly owned knowledge creation, universities have been incapacitated by an enterprise culture that promotes performance management and centralised auditing rather than flexibility and openness.

The culture of creativity, disinterested scholarship and free- thinking at universities has been undermined. Students and their families are paying more for a lower standard of goods.

The knowledge-driven economy requires entrepreneurs, but informational markets will also depend on non-market institutions for the creation of social and intellectual capital. Entrepreneurial cultures are characterised by rapid, discontinuous activity. They are inherently unstable. To secure their innovations, they eventually require grounding in well-managed, structured environments. Universities need to foster links with such cultures, but not to adopt them wholesale. Their job is to pursue the public good and to push back the frontiers of knowledge without commercial application in mind. Without this creation of fundamental sources of disinterested knowledge, the quality of applied research in enterprise and industry will decline.

Jonathan Rutherford is a reader in cultural studies at Middlesex University.

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