Comment: Seismic shift needed in the relationship between Irish universities and enterprise

If third-level institutions focused more on the needs of their stakeholders, it could result in an innovation pipeline which works in both directions

‘We could fundamentally rethink our undergraduate experience, reframing it as a long-term talent development pipeline co-created with enterprise.’ Picture: Getty

At €200 million, the recent Human Capital Initiative is one of the largest investments ever in Irish higher education. It aims to increase the capacity of universities to meet priority skills needs at this pivotal time and in the disruptive aftermath of Covid-19. To fully deliver on this investment, a seismic shift is needed in the relationship between Irish universities and enterprise.

It has been a turbulent decade in Irish higher education. While the policy debate was dominated by funding, or the perceived lack thereof, a new streamlined landscape of “traditional” universities and new technological universities has emerged from mergers and consolidations of smaller institutions.

Amid this unprecedented structural reform, it would have been easy to miss one of the most significant policy developments. A portion of the National Training Fund (NTF) was used to fund higher education for the first time in 2017. By recognising employers as a key beneficiary, it unpicked the long-standing assumption that only the state and students should pay for higher education, an approach which appears to be unique internationally.

In 2020 the NTF made a moderate contribution to higher education funding (about 10 per cent) comparable to the international fee income. Its deployment reflects the increasing trend where universities must compete for what was once a given. The sector is awash with competitive funding schemes for priority skills as a result.

The largest of these by far is the Human Capital Initiative Pillar 3 Innovation and Agility Call. Twenty-two successful projects were announced in October 2020, with investments ranging from €3 million to €20 million-plus.

They promise tantalising new ways for universities to deliver on priority skills for enterprise – next-generation graduates, virtual reality workplace simulators and microcredentials to name but a few. A seismic shift is needed, however, in the relationship between Irish universities and enterprise to fully realise the potential of this investment.

Steve Jobs, the late Apple founder, once said: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology, not the other way around.”

Apple, one of the world’s most successful and transformative technology companies was built on a simple premise: what do our users need? How would Steve Jobs would design an Irish university? Would he have distilled complex strategic planning to a similarly simple question – what do our students and external stakeholders need?

It is an interesting thought experiment. What would happen if our universities focused more of their energy on serving their stakeholders and less on serving themselves?

A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions, according to the philosopher Emerson. Would this new mindshift challenge the pervasive assumption of a one-directional relationship where skills and knowledge are produced by universities to be transferred to enterprise?

If we did entertain the idea that the skills and innovation capacity in enterprise itself could be our greatest untapped resource in developing our national talent pool, two game-changers would become possible.

Working from the inside-out, universities could extend their valuable accreditation to the talent development programmes in enterprise, proactively supporting enterprise to design and deliver their own training. This is already provided for in the Linked and Collaborative Provision in the National Framework of Qualifications. A partial solution to higher education funding also begins to emerge – more than €1 billion is spent annually by Irish enterprise on staff development.

Working from the outside-in, we could fundamentally rethink our undergraduate experience, reframing it as a long-term talent development pipeline co-created with enterprise. Embedding real enterprise challenges in our programmes, and connecting students with enterprise mentors, could create real value to SMEs in particular. Student innovation teams, co-mentored by experienced academic, research and enterprise staff could provide light-touch, low-cost, low-commitment test beds for new innovations, making the expertise in our national research and innovation centres more accessible and create a seamless bi-directional innovation pipeline.

An “enterprise faculty” in our skills ecosystems can bubble up – a vibrant community of talent developers from enterprise and academia – which leap frogs the traditional adjunct lecturers and sporadic guest speakers. We move from formal structured partnerships to “Velcro” university-enterprise engagement – where lots and lots and lots of light-touch regular interactions between staff in enterprise and academia create strong relationships, nurtured and sustained by shared purposes within a regional ecosystem.

Answering the question of what enterprise needs means it might even become possible to deliver the holy grail – the single point of contact – that Irish SMEs have sought for decades. Our universities might invest in staff whose job it is to straddle both domains, boundary-spanning roles like convenors, innovation brokers, skills brokers who connect academic communities with companies and craft integrated solutions across the breadth of education, research and innovation activities.

That said, we do need out universities to remain immutable on one aspect of the university-enterprise relationship. If their enterprise becomes closer, and cosier if the funding dependency is amplified, we also need our universities to continue to do what they do best. We need them to be the independent honest brokers, safeguarding the formative experiences of our students, remaining the guardians of science and fact, retaining full autonomy to question and hold government and enterprise to account. A daunting challenge certainly, but tackling daunting challenges is what our universities do best.

Irish enterprise has always been a key user of higher education. With the NTF investment, it is now an influential funder. If our universities can frame an appropriate response and take advantage of this, moving beyond lip service and asking what enterprise needs, we can co-create our national talent development and innovation pipeline in a truly innovative and agile way. We may also have a partial solution to the funding for Irish higher education.

Deirdre Lillis is a member of the board of the Higher Education Authority, the Senate of the National University of Ireland and head of Computer Science in TU Dublin. She has led the EU-funded HubLinked university-enterprise alliance of global IT hubs for the past seven years. All views expressed here are her own.