Deliberating about bridging the gap between industry and universities in a global knowledge economy

Deliberations about the meanings and uses of higher education continue apace.  The global economic crisis has exasperated the significance of this centuries old debate, in part because of serious fiscal pressures, but also because of the perception that higher education is now becoming the ‘railroad of the 21st century’.

Why is the ‘railroad of the 21st century’ perception emerging, rightly or wrongly? In part because a structural transformation to a ‘knowledge-based economy’ is underway; one dependent upon related shifts, including the emergence of a ‘knowledge society’. And which institutions are critically important to producing a knowledge society? Well, many, but a key one is, undoubtedly, the university.

Now the ‘uses of higher education’ debate is taking place on many levels, only one of which (university-industry linkages) we’ll flag today.  Other debates centre on views that higher education should be considered as an ‘export-earning industry’ (and issue we have discussed in GlobalHigherEd), or the logic of opening new types of higher education institutions (e.g., KAUST and Amsterdam University College, both of which celebrated their openings last week) with unique missions. [Note: we’ll be posting coverage of both openings over the next several days]

Bridging the perceived gap between universities and industry in the UK/Europe

Given the structural pressure to create a knowledge society/economy, and the patently obvious decline of government income per student in most countries, we are witnessing drives in many countries to create and/or deepen university-industry linkages. The logic is to generate (a) more innovation within the economic development process, (b) new streams of revenue for fiscally challenged universities via the commercialization of select forms of knowledge production, and (c) more entrepreneurial students who will become the tangible drivers of the knowledge economy.  I’m being simplistic here, of course, but this is the broad tenor of the argument.

This drive is focused on, albeit unevenly across space and time, bridging the perceived gap between universities (as represented by faculty, researchers, and students) and industry. Bridging activities include patenting, licensing, spinning-off firms, consultancy, contract research, on-demand training, new forms of formal and informal advisory relationships, and so on.

Now the drive to enhance transformation of the mission of universities comes from many quarters. In some countries and city-regions it comes from within the universities themselves, while in other contexts industry is the key driver. In yet other contexts the push comes from national governments, as well as regional (e.g., the European Commission) or international organizations (e.g. the World Bank).  In all cases an ‘innovation’ agenda underlies the push.

An example of a push from ‘industry’ was clearly evident last week in the UK. The industry push came via the UK-based Confederation of British Industry (CBI), under the leadership of Richard Lambert. Lambert is the CBI’s director-general, author of the Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration (2003), and co-author (with Nick Butler) of The Future of European Universities: Renaissance or Decay? (2006). Lambert has also acted as the University of Warwick’s Chancellor since 2008.

CBIcoverThe CBI’s Higher Education unit stirred up the debate via the release of a major report titled Stronger Together – Businesses and Universities in Turbulent Times. Let me quote, extensively, from the press release, including a lead-off quote from Sam Laidlaw, Chairman of the CBI Higher Education taskforce and CEO of Centrica:

“Effective collaboration between the higher education sector, business and government will be critical to the UK’s economic recovery and sustainable international competitiveness. Business must also make a sustained effort in supporting higher education. To this end, I am pleased that as a Task Force we have made a strong commitment to provide the support needed to help students build the employability and technical skills that are so important.”

The report proposes that more businesses should work with universities to:

  • Sponsor students studying subjects relevant to business, such as science and technology.
  • Provide financial support to new graduates, through bonuses when they sign on with the firm.
  • Offer more opportunities for internships, placements, work experience or projects.
  • View working with universities as part of core innovation activity.

Richard Lambert, CBI director-general, said:

“Maintaining a world-class higher education system is vital to the UK’s future competitiveness, and we should sustain current levels of investment in teaching and research, which are low by international standards. Strong leadership is also needed to minimise the risk of long-term decline.

“Business should engage more with universities, both financially and intellectually. More firms should help design and pay for courses for the benefit of the current and future workforce, and more firms should offer students practical work experience.

“In return for this extra investment of time and money, business will want to see more emphasis given to certain subjects, such as science, technology, engineering and maths. Languages are also seen to be important, and the taskforce argues that more should be done to prepare students for the world of work, and teach them the generic skills that will help smooth their pathway into employment.”

Needless to say, this report has been both praised and criticized over the last week. Some are concerned that the UK government is turning higher education into a training unit for private firms, while others are praising the call for greater focus (the ‘do less better’ mantra) and the report’s recognition that there is a disconnect between society’s ambitions for its universities and the funding base that currently exists.

The report’s findings are likely to feed into deliberations about the new proposals (launched last week as well) regarding the UK’s proposed Research Excellence Framework (REF), which will replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

Two contrarian views in the US

The timing of this push by industry, one largely supported by the UK’s Labour Government, coincided with two broadly critical arguments regarding such a development agenda.

Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, published a widely read 9 September article in the New York Times about the problems with such a development agenda. In her article (‘The University’s Crisis of Purpose’), Gilpin Faust argues that:

Higher education is not about results in the next quarter but about discoveries that may take — and last — decades or even centuries. Neither the abiding questions of humanistic inquiry nor the winding path of scientific research that leads ultimately to innovation and discovery can be neatly fitted within a predictable budget and timetable….Universities are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but also of (often inconvenient) doubt. They are creative and unruly places, homes to a polyphony of voices. But at this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society.

As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism, should universities — in their research, teaching and writing — have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? Should universities have presented a firmer counterweight to economic irresponsibility? Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?

Since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in preprofessional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify.

As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.

Drew Gilpin Faust’s argument complements a full-length piece (‘Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school’) by Mark Slouka in the September 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Slouka’s article focuses on education (versus just higher education) but it reflects the tenor of debates in higher ed in the US. His article, which is worth contrasting with the CBI report noted above, reflects a concern that the linkage agenda needs to be halted for it has already gone far too far, especially with respect to the valorization of select disciplines, specific forms of knowledge, and particular ways of knowing. Thus, the sense of urgency that the CBI constructs (in the UK) is turned upside down, and effectively viewed as an attempt to finish off what has been a long running and lost (or won, from an industry perspective) battle. Slouka’s sense is that:

[I]t’s about the increasing dominance—scratch that, the unqualified triumph—of a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value. It’s about the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t. It’s about the quiet retooling of American education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production.

Slouka’s argument is primarily situated in the American context, but resonates with debates going on in many other countries, both on university-industry linkages, but also on the challenges the Humanities are currently facing.

What are universities for?The contributions of both Slouka and Gilpin Faust remind me of elements of the argument of Geoffrey Boulton and Colin Lucas in What are universities for? (League of European Research Universities, September 2008):

It is our contention that slipshod thinking about the roles that universities can play in society is leading to demands that they cannot satisfy, whilst obscuring their most important contributions to society, and, in the process, undermining their potential. It is wrong, in our view, to expect … that universities will be dynamos of growth and huge generators of wealth, leading to economic prosperity and enhanced quality of life on anything like the scale that is implicit in such language. In a European context, where governments are principal funders of universities, the assumption is that they are a lever which, when pulled, will gush forth the tangible effects of economic prosperity into which public money has been transformed. In reality, universities can only be one part of the process of producing a successful knowledge economy. The oft-quoted example of Silicon Valley and Stanford University is far more subtle and complex than a simple reading allows. It is a compound of capitalist enterprise, technical and legal services, skilled labour, a broad range of social provision in the public domain, local and state government policy, the appetites of an historically entrepreneurial culture, and maybe even climate.

Mission creep is to be expected for universities are embedded in a services-dominated knowledge economy (in the Global North, at least): it would be foolish not to expect universities to be asked to play a stronger role in the development and innovation process. But such mission creep needs to be interrogated, debated about, contextualized (as Boulton and Lucas hint at), and viewed in other than simple B&W ways. Broader factors, too, like the largesse Harvard University sits on needs to be flagged, for this multi-billion dollar endowment arguably provides Gilpin Faust with at least some of her desired latitude.

I’ll close off by noting that the UK’s CBI is being remarkably open about their objectives.  This is to be welcomed and it contrasts sharply with what happens in many other countries. The CBI (via the CBI Higher Education taskforce) seems ready for a debate, and they are systematic and strategic about their agenda. Yet the critics of the CBI agenda seem to primarily gripe from the edges, at least as perceived from my distanced perspective. We await a more formal and systematic critique to emerge in the UK; one that is equally formed, as coherently put together, and as openly circulated, as is the CBI viewpoint. The unruly process of innovation depends upon it.

Kris Olds

One thought on “Deliberating about bridging the gap between industry and universities in a global knowledge economy

  1. Everyone who works outside the home does so in some sort of business, so in that sense, all education constitutes, in part, workforce preparation. But workforce preparation is not equivalent, or limited to, the STEM fields. Indeed, in survey after survey from all industries, including engineering industries, the qualities of graduates most in demand are not technical and scientific skills, but those we expect from those who have received a liberal education:
    -the ability to think critically/problem solving skill
    -communications skills (writing, speaking, listening)
    -interpersonal skills/teaming skills
    -ethics
    -leadership/initiative
    -business acumen

    The STEM obsession is, in part, grounded in a sense of panic about the unsustainable university-industry-government research system that has evolved over the past 60 years: if large numbers of highly trained scientists become unemployed, or have no funding for their research, it will be very hard to argue that we need MORE scientists and more undergrad and grad students in STEM fields, and industry dependent on the flow of funds from government to universities to them will falter without the subsidy. Government, facing other important priorities and unable to pinpoint the return from all the money it pours into the sciences, expects industry to do more; government’s worst nightmare, whether for highly paid scientists or entry-level technicians, is, of course, unemployment. Industry and higher education both have interests in producing more scientists; universities in order to fill seats in those programs, industry in order to fill entry-level jobs, and both of them to have a source of inexpensive research labor.

    It is not that students should not be competent in science and math, but it is difficult to make the case that it should be more of a priority than other fields except for survival reasons: that is old economy (and old industry) thinking, particularly now when the entire conception of innovation is moving away from technology as a driver toward a much more integrative, organizational, conceptual model in which science and technology are in a supporting role. Universities, government, and industry likewise need to re-think the ways they support each other to reflect this broader conception of innovation.

    Of possible interest for background, see my article “Toward a theory of the university: Mapping the American research university in space and time,” American Journal of Education Feb. 2008

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