As an organisational form, the university has proven extraordinarily resilient. With the first university established in Bologna more than a 1000 years ago, universities have proven to be able to change and adapt. Today, while by no means being in crisis, universities are facing a variety of challenges. A common thread characterising many of these challenges is universities’ relationship with the forces of the market. Universities have embraced the market in various ways, from selling intellectual property to marketing degrees as premium priced customer propositions to competing for scholars in the market for academic labour. This has sometimes resulted in tension and conflict both within the academic system itself as well as in relation to wider stakeholders. In this piece, I will outline some of the key areas in which I believe strategic action will be warranted.
On the whole, I argue that while embracing the market has been productive and beneficial for the university system, universities have to safeguard their distinctiveness and autonomy from other spheres of society.
First, defend the distinctiveness of public science
The type of science conducted at universities tends to be considered too “basic” by the corporate sector, and hence much of it would not be performed without the public science funding system in place. In most advanced science economies, the corporate sector indeed contributes less than 5% of the total cost of university research. Simultaneously, it is beyond doubt that public science, both in terms of its knowledge output and the production of skilled researchers, generates a very significant input to innovation pursued in companies, government and society at large. The public science system has its own professional code, incentive systems and ways of working, and generates outputs that are made public and accessible to every – body essentially for free, provided they are equipped with the necessary absorptive capacity. One may argue that only a system with the above characteristics – distinct from the corporate sector and funded publicly or philanthropically – will be able to generate those outputs that are valued by corporations and other innovators yet not produced by them. Therefore, it is incumbent upon universities to ensure they retain their distinct identity oriented upon curiosity-led research, enabling them to complement – rather than substitute – corporate innovation machines.
Second, defend the independence of universities
Being located within a distinct societal sphere also enables universities to be relatively independent from other social actors. There is a strong case to be made that our societies need universities and their academics to provide distinct viewpoints that in some cases may contrast with those provided by other players, be they governments, corporations or social forces. The provision of opinions and judgements independent from commercial and political interests, for example, is important in areas including environmental protection and climate change, nutrition and agritech, health care and public health, as well as inequality. It is incumbent on universities to take their intellectual independence seriously, and ensure it is not compromised by their resource acquisition or other type of dependencies.
Third, maximise the impact of science on economy and society but not necessarily via commercialisation
Taking the lead from the U.S. Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, many universities around the world have established technology-transfer offices and embraced commercialisation of intellectual property as a prime mode of securing external impact. While commercialisation undoubtedly remains an important channel for university science impact, universities have started to embrace a greater variety of different channels. These include other types of commercialisation, such as the “selling” of expertise via contract research and consulting. But more importantly, they also include less directly commercial forms of engagement. For instance, some universities have started partnering with corporations on the basis that all knowledge produced is made available for free and adds to the knowledge commons of an industry. The Structural Genomics Consortium is an example of such a partnership where pharmaceutical corporations sponsored the creation of academic knowledge in return for providing important basic knowledge that would accrue to the industry as a whole. Many universities have already widened their notion of impact to encompass a very broad variety of ways in which they seek to positively impact society. Universities have no natural right to be funded by tax-payers’ money (and note that even private universities benefit from having charitable status), and hence it appears only fair that they contribute to the social good in this way.
By ensuring they remain distinctive and independent, and adhere to their social responsibility, universities will continue to thrive as a force for good in global society.
Markus Perkmann is a professor and head of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Department in the Imperial College Business School at Imperial College London. He is the academic director of the Imperial Enterprise Lab which is Imperial’s extracurricular center supporting student-led entrepreneurial projects. His primary research interests are in the study of innovation and entrepreneurship in science-intensive contexts, and organizational theory, particularly hybrid organizations and candidate-audience relationships. He received his PhD from the University of Lancaster, and is the joint editor-in-chief of ‘Innovation: Organization and Management’.