This is the last post in this series before I take a mini-break!
Universities are now expected to be hubs of industrial/business innovation. And, this recent contribution has shown that universities do indeed produce start-ups and patents but whether they do so in a cost-effective manner is not obvious. A useful benchmark to keep in mind is that a single PhD project in the sciences and engineering will typically cost considerably in excess of €100K. If this is state-funded research, as it mainly is, it may well turn out that the cost per job created by university start-ups is unsustainably high. But that’s a discussion for those more qualified in these things than me.
What I want to focus on is the other costs associated with university-led innovation. When a university establishes an innovation or enterprise ethos, or even a very ‘planned’ approach to research, it inevitably incurs extra costs. Let me give you an example. Since January, DCU (the ‘University of Enterprise’) has advertised for research and innovation administrators whose salaries alone I calculate will cost considerably in excess of 500K per annum, the final value depending on the point on the salary scale at which people are appointed. (This information is freely available on the DCU HR pages so I’m breaking no confidence here.) New positions include ‘Commercialisation Support Officer’, ‘Marketing Development Officer’, ‘Research Administration Manager’ and ‘Research Funding Diversity Officer’. Part of the reason for this ‘beefing up’ of the administrative infrastructure is that academics need a lot of help when it comes to innovation. Academics are excellent at discovering and creating knowledge but they are not natural business innovators. Most wouldn’t have a clue what it takes to patent an invention and very few would have any understanding of how to raise venture capital; few have any understanding of company law.
But the problem with this spend on administration is that vital resources are being sucked out of what is essentially an education budget and diverted into what is essentially a job/product creation budget. Perhaps this will turn out to be a good investment for the university and, ultimately for the state. Perhaps financial rewards will be reaped in terms of the overheads from large international research grants or income from licensing etc., benefiting the education mission in the process. But this is an annual cost that comes with no guarantees and leaves in its wake academic departments whose slice of the budget is diminished every time another piece of research and innovation infrastructure is put in place.
One thing we need to consider is how we deal with the whole innovation ’thing’ in a more coordinated way. DCU is not alone in the approach it is taking – all universities and the IoTs have become universities of enterprise, something that is not surprising given the desperate economic circumstances we are in. But does it really make sense for all universities to establish their own innovation/enterprise infrastructure, each one incurring costs that are diminishing the education budget? And what about all the other state agencies that play similar innovation support roles, Enterprise Ireland being the obvious example?
I think the emphasis on innovation, while understandable, is damaging the core mission of undergraduate education and we need to come up with a mechanism whereby money earmarked for education is actually spent on education.