Universities cannot lead innovation when they themselves are all but impervious to innovation

Brian M. Lucey

I really despair at times around the rhetoric in the university space. The meme at present is innovation. We are to be the engines of innovation, creating and educating a generation of innovators, leading to an Ireland that is the land of innovators and entrepreneurs. And yet, within the third and fourth level sector, for a variety of reasons, universities are highly conservative and increasingly bureaucratic institutions.  I know of no way in which we can have innovation embedded in students without it being embedded in the universities, and we are far from that.  Rather than being innovative, universities are increasingly conservative, strangled by bureaucracy, and fearful.

There are good reasons for universities to be conservative. As an institutional group, an industry if you were, they have been phenomenally successful in continuing to exist. Over 600+ years universities have continued to operate with a policy of slow change. That has served them well, in that they have not generally gone with the faddish flow. At times that has meant an increasing disconnect with the rest of the world but eventually both elements come back into alignment. So, innate conservatism as an institution is a feature of the beast.

I  suggest that to foster innovation in students, if such even be possible, universities must themselves be innovative. That they are not. True innovation is disruptive, organizationally and sometimes financially costly, and challenging. We need to embrace this.

Innovative organizations act like venture capital companies internally. That is to say, they back lots of initiatives, knowing the great majority will fail miserably, some will limp along, a few do ok and a very few might be successes. Internally failure is punished by lack of promotion and ignoring of future ideas. Beyond that we face an external environment hostile to failure, dominated by a civil service wherein the path to promotion is paved with inertia. Imagine the carping wails from media commentators, publicity seeking minor political hacks and mandarins whose idea of innovation is to have grey socks instead of black were a university president to ruck up and say “yep, we failed big-time in this, and boy did we learn. We are going to be so much better for this“. They would tune out after the second word, not so much rushing to judgement as oozing prejudicially towards it. Until we see the monies spent on failed courses, bust initiatives, and imploding centers as investments and not “waste” then we cannot expect universities to take the plunge. This isnt a wasters charter – its a need for a new mindset in the finders and a courageous mindset in those funded.This runs internally also. So if we want to foster innovation in students we need to learn to accept massive, continual failure. Else, we simply will avoid the consequences by inertia. If you do nothing you run no risk of failing in doing something.

The disruptive element is also absent, perhaps for the reasons outlined. Looking at the university sector in ireland it is in most ways the same as it was when I entered as an undergraduate in 1981. To each of the following questions there are exceptions of course but we need to ask some hard questions across the board.

  • For the most part irish academics work in disciplinary silos, where funding and promotion are vertical and where each silo is forced into a hobbesian war of all against all for a slice of the pie. We have very little horizontal interaction save by chance, and few academics work outside their area. Teaching and research are mostly within schools or maybe faculties. This is bureaucratically easy to manage but hardly fosters a sense of intellectual cross fertilization. Where are the cross disciplinary units? What are the ways we reward initiatives which seek to break traditional boundaries? Where are the chairs in Public Engagement with Art, in Science Communication, in Sustainable Finance….?
  • We teach, more or less, as we have always done. Powerpoint (or Beamer if you are an economist who thinks that making things more difficult for oneself is a mark of a ma) has replaced the chalkboard but that it for the most part. Where are the flipped classrooms? Where is the drive to ensure student participation via the use of clickers and instant feedback?  Where is the online presence, and not just in MOOCs? Where is the push for inquiry based learning? What role do we have for open learning?
  • We run the danger, both from self interest and from fiscal interest, in skewing more and more towards one side of the dyad. Universities are or should be about teaching and research. As less and less, proportionally, money comes following students a source of funds that is more and more tapped is that for research. Combine that with the reality that in the modern environment research is the key to mobility (as I think it should be) and the skew is in. But research alone is sterile and teaching without research is mere scholasticism. Where is the innovation in ensuring that both are honoured at the individual and organizational level? Where are the teaching intensive tracks, not the punitive approaches taken for “failed” researchers that we see in the UK and Australia but ones that allow gifted teachers to excel and be rewarded (while still doing some research just as even the most gifted researcher must face a student now and again)?
  • We typically teach towards the same rhythm. No, universities don’t close for the summer – such sneering ignorance is typical of those who see third level as a kind of second level school for kids who can drink, but hears as little resemblance to reality asking why a radio show is only on 2h per week or why parliament sits only X days per week. Things happen other than at the undergraduate lecture space. That aside, we teach to two semester per annum for historical reasons. Ensuring that staff get one semester free from teaching ensures, if we manage it, that there is research undertaken. But we must ask where are the credit based and flexible learning courses? Where are the accelerated degrees as a flipside to that? We need to consider students as self actuating adults. Some may wish to speed through an education, others may need or desire to take things at a slower pace. We don’t, typically, facilitate that as part of the mainstream. Where is the granting of credits for demonstrated transferable, life and soft skills not gained in the formal setting?
  • We are poor at integrating those inside and outside the groves of academe. Universities are part of society and vice versa. While there are many many adjuncts delivering courses and sometimes engaging in research, we seem to eschew innovative flexible engagement. Where are the formal professors of practice, outside the medical schools? Where are the fractional posts, the joint appointments of academics with “industry”, the seamless engagement of society with universities and viceversa?
  • We deliver courses in silos. There are some wonderful cross institutional initiatives but  where are the efficiencies in delivering basic transferable skills across units instead of silo based approaches? Where indeed are the structures that allow students to transfer within not to mind between institutions as they themselves learn their interests and skills?
  • We stifle ourselves with bureaucracy, morphing into managerialism. This is confused with management. Faced with a demand for something from the external environment the natural reaction is to create a committee, to introduce a form… or sometimes worse- Foreign travel in TCD  requires a form to obtain a form which then requires a form thereafter to obtain refunding where the existence of the first form is not allowed as evidence that the activity was sanctioned….Where is the innovation in reducing bureaucratic overhead and slimming down plethoras of committees?
  • The external environment is ever more intrusive, with the slow imposition of a form of organizational structure which worked well, for a while, in early 20th mass industry is as well suited to managing a modern knowledge organization as a sea lion is to playing the viola. Yet, faced with this, where is the innovation in how internally universities are organized and how collectively they engage coopetitivly?  Faced with an external environment where a prominent public official can use the analogy of feeding bowls for funding, what have Irish universities done to both decry this language and to respond to the concerns which might animate it, no matter how distasteful it is worded?
  • We look to the international student body as a  source of funds but we are fearful of innovation in seeking these. There is a steady stream of vice presidents for global affairs streaming to India and China to seek to get students. Meanwhile, we sit on the edge of a continent of 500m people, ignoring them for the most part, hoping they will come along. We end up showing where Ireland is on a map when we go to seek students in Chindia. We dont need that when dealing with people who know where we are and who mostly dont think we are too bad in our  When was the last time a major push was made to engage Polish or Italian undergraduates to come to Ireland? Where is the encouragement of formal joint degrees with Slovenian or Portuguese institutions? Where are the joint appointments of faculty?

I could go on. If we do not allow, encourage, cajole and force ourselves into allowing innovation, with the concurrent failures that it will entail, in the creation and delivery of our own products, how can we be taken seriously as a force for innovation in society? Modern technology, massification of education, reduced external funding and greater international competition should force us to look at ourselves. The fad de jure for making universities lead the push in society for greater innovation is that – a fad. But the need for organizations facing the forces that Universities face to themselves become more innovative, or at least more open to same, that is longer lasting. In a budgetary and organizational crisis we can hunker down or face the challenge. We seem to be hunkering down.

2 thoughts on “Universities cannot lead innovation when they themselves are all but impervious to innovation

  1. Its true that we can not teach someone becoming entrepreneurs if ourselves are not actually entrepreneurs. Universities teach entrepreneurial skills while academic and administrative staff are not entrepreneurial in the first place. I would expect that entrepreneurial spirit is instilled to the employees first and then the same skills is transferred to students. With current globalized market, there is no way organizations of both sector would escape to be innovative. There are only two paths, either innovate or don’t so that you perish.

    we need to encourage the so called public sector entrepreneurship ( corporate entrepreneurship) that encourage creativity and innovation in order to remain competitive in the market.

    1. The purpose of universities is not to produce entrepreneurs, but to provide an environment where people can educate themselves.

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