How’s business? Balancing the academy and industry

As universities mull their partnerships with outsiders, all eyes study their power within national economic hierarchies

May 31, 2018
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It is a perennial question that will never be conclusively answered: how much should universities and industry overlap, and in what ways?

The debate about blue-skies versus applied research is as old as the hills, although a false dichotomy if it is presented as an either/or – serious universities must, and do, undertake both.

But it would be silly to deny that the tension exists or that universities never face pressure in various guises over the balance between the two.

It is not just an issue about research, either. The same basic question applies to the roster of courses on offer, to curricula and to the combination of academic and industry-focused experiences that contribute to the ideal degree course in 2018.

Attitudes will vary student to student, not to mention country to country, but for every institution there is a balance to be struck – and closely monitored as circumstances change.

In our news pages this week, we assess how this debate is playing out in terms of curricula, reporting on an extreme interpretation of industry collaboration in South Korea, where Incheon National University is handing over almost complete control of one of its colleges to industry partners .

This is one end of the spectrum – the university’s president tells us that universities “should be honoured to be the servants of industry” – and is unlikely to be a template for many others to follow.

But the issue itself is not peculiar to any one country and the debate about a more instrumental approach to higher education is just as relevant in the high-prestige systems as it is in developing economies.

The tension here may come from students, for example, and their choices in a marketised system.

Writing in Times Higher Education in 2014, the Dartmouth University economist David Blanchflower foresaw a future in which the humanities are relegated to an almost extracurricular area of study in elite institutions as students flock to majors in economics, medicine and law.

“Students are free to choose whatever major they like once admitted, but there is the rub,” he wrote. “The problem is that they speak with their feet and seem to well understand rates of return – the earning power associated with different degrees...They all want to be a doctor, a lawyer or to work on Wall Street.”

This question of what students want must, however, be weighed against what is good for the country and our cover story this week takes a macro look at economic development, asking whether universities are the product or driver of growth.

It’s a contentious question, not least because universities have built empires, and continue to base the case for public funding, on the idea that they are the foundation of successful economies.

In a speech just last week, the UK’s prime minister Theresa May highlighted the role of science and research in dealing with economic problems resulting from deindustrialisation. Her commitment to a long-term funding target of 2.4 per cent of GDP for R&D made clear her own position on this.

But if this argument stacks up in the developed world, does the same necessarily hold true in countries at very different stages of development? We examine the evidence, speak to experts and crunch the numbers, and it is clear that this is a complex question that is difficult to answer definitively across all geographies.

One thing, though, is not in doubt: it would be a brave (or foolish) government that bowed out of the international higher education arms race, whatever its place in the economic hierarchy.

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