I’ve mostly been spoiled when it comes to understanding what people who work in Universities actually do. After swanning around the Aegean, Boston, Vicenza, Budapest and even Malaga with various Professors from various Universities over the last decade it all seemed so easy – complete a few project meetings, work on a bunch of pre-agreed deliverables, pass the review meetings with the EC and make sure claim forms were ‘believable’.
Among those academics I have had the pleasure to work with include:-
I assumed they all had jobs for life. Naturally, when you look ‘under the hood’ things are quite different. After completing week one of my journey as Industrial Partnerships Manager at the University of Lincoln, it’s fair to say that Universities are more business-like than they appear on the tin.
For example, there are targets for most things and people talk about diversifying income streams like it was on a risk register somewhere. Yet there are competing objectives which cut deep through the various colleges, departmental structures and individual careers. That is, striking a balance between the various facets of success – which basically means regularly switching focus from teaching to enterprise to research and back to teaching.
I liken the situation to that in healthcare where there is a tension between the doctors, clinicians and office managers. Should quality of care be prioritised over all else – or is maintaining a safe and sustainable service all that matters?
It makes sense to me that research at Universities is done with a commercial mind-set. After all, if you can’t bring industry to the University then industry will recreate the University within itself. Having spent time at Philips Research and BT Labs, the overlap is already apparent. It is also telling that businesses are starting to call the place they work ‘campuses’ – no more recent example than the Huawei campus in China (https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/15/huawei-new-campus-in-dongguan-china-photos.html)
So what is the differentiator? Clearly, Universities are free from the whim of shareholders and can focus on research which has societal benefit – not just projects that are profit driven. To that extent, they have the luxury of being a little more human and community spirited. However, this also creates experts with unworkable loyalties – such as those who are wed to their subject more than their host bodies.
So, industry and its drive for smart commerce can get in the way of delivering excellence. For example, one of my worst experiences at Philips Research (NL) was to be part of the invention of a truly remarkable digital signal processing algorithm only for it to get dumbed-down in production as it would have added 15p to each unit sold.
One thing is for sure – the blurring of the lines between Universities and commerce, ethics and drive for sustainable incomes means that partnerships will be important to survival. The universal translator hasn’t been invented yet but the foundations are in place for us to find common ground.