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Economic Development: the Fourth Pillar of the University

So, if it is accepted that teaching and research are key foundations of the modern university, and civic engagement has now been added as a third pillar, then let me offer economic development as the fourth pillar to make our higher education ‘chair’ nice and stable. This might sound heretical to some academics, but the university has to move in the direction of the modern world.

At a time of credit crunch and recession, when our graduates of all hues are finding it hard to get work, and the spectre of emigration has raised its ugly head yet again, the university plays a vital role. The idea of the triple helix; of universities, government and industry working together as a key part of the creation of economic clusters is not new. And indeed through the support of the state agencies such as Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland this has been going on for some time.

But we need to raise the game. On the sister blog to this one, the high-tech entrepreneurship blog, I talked about the University of Miami programme which has spawned over 45 startups in recent years. We have Dublin City University under a new President (himself not new to the research and development world of working with industry) talking about DCU being the ‘University of Enterprise’, which harkens back to the roots of what was then NIHE Dublin. We have TCD and UCD locked in their Innovation Alliance, and the City’s municipal councils linking us all together in the Creative Dublin Alliance. But now we must deliver and fast.

We now need people who can communicate with industry, both SME and Corporate, with entrepreneurs and with the academic community. We need to reach out to recent graduates so they know the university (and Institute of Technology) sector is a source of entrepreneurial support. We need to link our alumni into the process. We need to make entrepreneurship a legitimate career choice. And not just for business students.

The cry that usually goes up is that all this ‘business’ dilutes the meaning of the University. That this is ‘corporatism’ or worse, ‘managerialism’ (like Taylorism just happened yesterday, the detractors really need to get some new language).

I disagree, most of the entrepreneurs from the Miami programme did not come from their business school. There is a lot of entrepreneurship that can come from a humanities faculty as much as from a business school. Indeed many entrepreneurship centres in US universities are based in computing or engineering faculties. Surely the university from a students point of view is about the fulfillment of potential? We are not saying all academics or student should be entrepreneurs, but offering the entrepreneurial mindset in the 21st century, whether you call it creativity or innovation or some semantic variation, is vital. Social entrepreneurship (see our other blog on the subject) shows that it is possible to apply ideas and concepts from business to a wider variety of organisations and settings.

The University population has a chance to really shape not only the social future of the Island but also the business side. With the right support, (innovation, creativity and elements like ethics, which God knows needs to be brought into a variety of educational areas, lest the financial and institutional corruption continue another generation) collectively we can develop a new Ireland which can prosper and allow people from all levels prosper too.

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