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Innovation System – the University

A vital part of any country’s innovation system is of course the higher education system particularly the University system. The Irish system finds itself heavily constrained in recent years between staff cuts, recruitment bans and financial cut-backs.

The worrying solution that the government seems to be hinting at is the idea of mergers for the universities. Don’t get me wrong, there is a huge capacity for bringing organisations together in the sector. It is the particular position that is worrying. For example there has been talk about merging Trinity College and University College Dublin. Having worked in mergers and acquisitions back in the 90’s, one of the key requirements is that the two organisations have a similar culture. The prime example of what happens when you don’t have cultural similarity: the ill-fated Time Warner and AOL merger (RIP). I don’t believe that TCD and UCD are culturally similar, ‘Innovation Alliance’ not withstanding.

The other issue is that in political circles there seems to be an idea that ‘big is better.’ If one looks at the world university rankings list (any of them), you will see that those institutions that are generally at the top of the list are not large universities by international standards.

At number one in the THE-QS world rankings in 2009, Harvard had 18,000 students with an additional 13,000 in its extension college. Cambridge at number 2 also had approximately 18,000 students. Yale University had approximately 12,000 students at number three in the world.

And the rest of the list is similar, for example Imperial College had less than 14,00 students (joint number 5 in the world), Oxford (joint number 5) at 18,000 students. MIT (number 9) had about  11,000 or about the size of DCU. And California Institute of Technology or Caltech had less than 2,500 students. Given that TCD and UCD, along with the other Irish universities, are in and around the students numbers listed here, the real issue is not the number of Universities but the overall number of higher educational institutions in the country.

We also need to look seriously at how these institutions will act in the innovation space. At the moment there are very few courses that have innovation, creativity or even entrepreneurship in their titles. A few bright spots here and there but entrepreneurship shouldn’t be the sole reserve of the Business Schools. In the US and elsewhere entrepreneurship often resides on the engineering side of the house. Looking at these US models we see some interesting facts – not only that you can have a world leading university with less than 3,000 students but also the MIT case where there are more postgraduates than there are undergraduates.

Higher education is a key part of the innovation agenda, in terms of education, training, skills….in terms of technology transfer and not just entrepreneurship, but an entrepreneurial mindset. We need to link engineering, the sciences, design and innovation together. We need to start looking at offering entrepreneurship, creativity and important subjects like ethics to a much wider audience at undergraduate level. The focus in government and often in a compliant media is on the wrong things. It isn’t size that is important, it is quality and innovation of thought. We can do that without betraying academic freedom (yes, there have exceptions to the rule, but aren’t there always).

We can do it because others have.

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