The future of higher education: who does what kind of research?

Today’s Irish Times newspaper contains more on the anticipated report of the strategic review group on higher education. One of the recommendations, apparently, will be that research should have a ‘much sharper commercial focus’, meaning that there should be a greater financial return for the taxpayer. Research should also be more closely aligned with the needs of the state and of the private sector.

I am personally not opposed to the idea that there should be some greater strategic focus in Ireland’s funded research, as we simply cannot be world class at everything and need to focus our resources. However, this is already being done, in the sense that research funding is now increasingly made available in a thematic way and with an emphasis on critical mass through inter-instiotutional collaboration. I would however regard any attempt to control the research agenda of individuals and groups within the higher education sector more directly as wholly misguided; so I would hope that what is being suggested here is nothing more than a continuation of what is already in place. As for securing a greater return, at one level that is already happening, in spades: the ability of the IDA to attract knowledge-intemnsive foreign direct investment is almost wholly based on the development of research excellence in Irish universities through research funding. But if the suggestion is that the funding should generate a quicker return in both capital value and revenues it is misguided: these are long term investments, and the value generated by the intellectual property will not increase exponentially overnight. Also, longer term returns will be needed to secure the institutions – the return to the state is, as I have just pointed out, the additional success in inward investment.

The report will also apparently say things about what kind of research should be done by which type of institution, with universities doing both ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research, while institutes of technology should focus on ‘applied’ research that is ‘closer to market development’. I have become increasingly sceptical about the distinction between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research, as the development of knowledge has blurred the lines between these considerably. In fact, I would not really know what to make of these recommendations in the context of today’s best practice.

There is, perhaps, a view in all of this that the oversight of research by state agencies should be more directive, and if so, this is likely to be counterproductive. The state is of course entitled to make its funding of research contingent on certain conditions being met, but this must be balanced against the need to encourage and support academic creativity and innovation, which will often produce very valuable results. A better way of looking at research would be to emphasise its significance for national prosperity (and therefore its importance in each higher education institution), and the importance of coordination of the national effort. But it should not trespass on the intellectual autonomy of researchers or the ability of institutions to develop strategic research objectives. A process of central planning by bureaucrats will not yield results.

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5 Comments on “The future of higher education: who does what kind of research?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I’ve been hitting the Rose of Tralee in spots. And remove your mind from the muck.
    But if ever you’ve seen proof of the uselessness of fluoridation of water, this is it.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Interesting observation, Vincent: I guess this is an example of the more applied research that Dr Hunt has in mind.

      • Vincent Says:

        Ah kd, the curse of eyes.
        As to the Fluoridation of water, I like a good little Arty type actually asked a dentist. Always supposing that these people have an active Ace in the game.

  2. Liam Delaney Says:

    I am going to start a gamble here about the number of serious peer-reviewed sources of evidence cited by the Hunt report for some of the assertions being made so far. Given the wide leaking of the report I don’t think Paddy Power will give me odds but everything about this review so far has the huge feeling of foregone conclusion. The Innovation Taskforce has approximately 6 peer reviewed references as well as references to other commission reports (not to mention some prizeworthy management speak and ironic artwork). I have been searching a lot and cannot find any serious work that would say that we know that giving government greater control over research priorities and aiming research at more short-term commercial projects will lead to a better return. There is a lot of evidence, on the other hand, that general freedom of academia and the media is positive for economic growth and human welfare.

  3. iainmacl Says:

    There are strong, persistent misunderstandings about the link between research and profit which whilst being difficult to shake from politicians’ minds are also embedded strongly within the culture of many of those seeking research funding. The combination of both is likely to eventually lead to disillusion and resentment, unfortunately. Simple, obvious examples might include setting the number of patents as key performance indicators which can result in increased submission of patents for ideas which are far from likely to be commercialisable, or an increased focus on ‘close to market’ development work within higher education which leads to companies decreasing their own internal R&D spend. But more profound perhaps is still the ideological construct of the knowledge economy and its increasing decoupling from lived reality of much of the population particularly as unemployment continues to rise.

    But let’s not despair. It won’t be long until the yourcountry-yourcall team announce the winners of their competition for ideas that aim to transform the economy.

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