Universities: finding a third mission

When in March of this year Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin launched their joint initiative, which they branded an ‘Innovation Alliance,’ the following comment appeared in the announcement:

The new 4th level TCD / UCD Innovation Academy will begin the process of defining and mainstreaming innovation as the 3rd arm of the university mission alongside education and research.

In many ways the two institutions’ announcement downplayed their existing initiatives that had developed a ‘third arm’, but in any case such an additional element of core mission had by then established itself quite firmly in all the Irish universities. It is probably well accepted everywhere that there is an additional element of core activity in all universities alongside teaching and research. TCD and UCD have labelled it ‘innovation’, but with no disrespect to the two universities that may be too vague to explain what this additional element might entail.

Traditionally many academics would probably have described the academy’s core activities as ‘teaching’ and ‘scholarship’. As more emphasis came to be placed on the view that universities should develop and extend knowledge rather than just disseminate it, ‘scholarship’ was transformed into ‘research’, with the change implying that there was an imperative to publish the outputs from scholarship. Published research (particularly in high profile publications) allowed the academic community to share information, and where possible pass on relevant elements of it to a wider (and often non-academic) audience.

Over time, a third core mission began to be identified. Some of the origins lay in the desire of governments to secure a wider benefit from the public investment in higher education. Rather than just focusing on providing the final element of education for school leavers, universities were increasingly expected to transfer knowledge more widely to the community in settings where that transfer could secure social or economic benefits, for example in supporting community work or in transferring intellectual property to those who would most effectively be able to exploit it for the purposes of economic activity and trade. Some of this latter activity was called ‘technology transfer’, but the overall mission is more usefully described as ‘knowledge transfer’ or, indeed, ‘knowledge exchange’. The latter is at the heart of what in the United Kingdom has become known as ‘third stream’ activity, so called because it has been funded under a third stream of resources (with teaching and research) by the funding bodies. An analysis of that funding in the British system can be seen here.

It seems to me to be undoubtedly right that universities and other higher education institutions should be expected to disseminate the benefits of their knowledge and expertise widely; the old idea of educating the elite has long been dropped in strategic rhetoric, but must also be transcended in practice. That this should be a third mission again seems to be obviously right. But for this to make a difference in practice it needs to be driven, both in the sense that it needs to behave a proper place in the organisational structure and that it needs to be accepted and championed by the faculty. That in turn requires that it is based on excellence and integrity, and that it is recognised in career development.

Not all third mission activities need to be the same in all universities, in that there should always be some diversity of mission more generally. But what is necessary is that in each institution there should be a clear strategy for this, which is understood and accepted and which has identifiable targets and outputs. Times being what they are, some of it will be about diversifying income streams. But the heart of this mission is the same as for any other part of the academy: to discover, develop, disseminate and transfer knowledge for the benefit of society.

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4 Comments on “Universities: finding a third mission”

  1. Vincent Says:

    If we were to shove that 650 million into the RIA, or any number of similar umbrella organs, we might see some good from it.
    And as to being vague, it makes the Lisbon treaties bastions of definitions and intentions. But somehow this feels the same way as someone chucking spaghetti at the kitchen tiles, however instead of doing this to check if it is cooked, doing it to see if it will stick.
    I get very wary any time I read something designed to be a press communication -Nuacht UCD_ and am required to expend the same effort needed to read Immanuel Kant for the first time. Nor am I all that impressed when after hacking my way through all the verbaige discover what they are on about, they should be doing anyway.

  2. Lorraine Says:

    Many institutions of higher education are taking the opportunity to debate and reinvigorate the civic mission of the institution as their third mission. Not only highlighting their economic contribution but also the wider social, civic and cultural role of institutions. It could be argued that the basis of education is to provide well rounded citizens which could fill positions of leadership in society, rather than benefit for the of individual- a public good rather than private? There is no doubt HEI can address social issues and needs as evidenced through science shops, volunteering, and service learning.

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    Where’s “innovation” on the bullshit bingo card, Ferdinand?

    “Innovation” is to research what Collateralised Debt Obligations are to Mortgages: a weak attempt to assure suckers that risk can be eliminated…


    • Oh I don’t know, Ernie – it depends on how the word is used. However, I am inclined to agree that it is fast being over-used and in danger of becoming a verbal filler…


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