Too much expected from third-level

We hear incessantly about the need – urgent need – to develop a fully functioning ‘knowledge economy’ and that this will emerge from research happening at 3rd level.

Third-level, thus, is expected to be the ‘white knight’ to save the Irish economy.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves.  Third  level cannot revive the Irish economy on its own.

The thinking goes that ideas developed on campus can be commercialised, used to form companies, and create new jobs.


But, wait, hold on a second!

Are universities not in existence primarily to educate? Many researchers on campus today, don’t teach, and if they do, they complain they have to do it. It does nothing to advance their career, the argument goes, so why do it?

This opens the question, if the universites are not primarily there to educate what is their function? If they are not teaching, what are they all about?

For ambitious researchers today – and it’s not their fault, it is the system’s fault – the focus is on developing patents, and intellecutal property (IP)

Are we losing our way here?

When teaching is so unimportant – and undervalued – that the best researchers do not want to do it, and students suffer accordingly.

Take for example, the science of ecology. Not a highly popular area with the funding agencies, as ecology is all about education for education’s sake.

Many of us would be interested to understand why the number of species, plants and animals, are declining in Ireland, but where’s the business angle?

Neither is this the type of prestigious research that is likely to get published in top journals. But Irish biology students should definitely know about it.

To follow the current logic: ecology, hmm….no commercial angles there, so it must be pretty worthless, why bother funding it?

Far better to fund research into nanotechnology, photonics, or information technology, where there is some prospect of a commercial angle at least.

And, that is what’s happening.

The needs of the economy are driving the 3rd level system, and it is creaking under the strain.


Meanwhile, the government is worried that not enough ‘spin out’ companies are emerging from third-level despite the investment put in since 1998.

It’s coming to the crunch soon, as Government is growing restless, and wants a return on its spending that it can show to the public.

If it can’t show that jobs are being created, continued spending in science will be harder and harder to justify, given what’s happening.

The Government have signalled their anxiety over the past year. They want to know where the jobs are, why are things moving so slowly?


The universities know they are under pressure to deliver.

There are IP offices now in all the universities and the push is on, but not much has been happening. Not as much as many hoped at least.

The reality is academics are academics for a reason. They want to be academics and they want to do research. Most are not interested in business. Forcing them into this area is just not going to work.

I’m  curious too where the Government got the idea to press the universities into action as the people that would save us all, and develop this ‘knowledge economy’ – a term that is overused and vague in meaning anyway.

You might think the Government got its ideas from the USA, which has 8 of the top 10 ranked universities in the world.

If you did think that you’d be wrong.

Take Stanford University in California, for example. A superb research institution, but it has no pretentions to get rich through ‘capturing IP’.

Stanford is rich, very rich, but not because of IP. It is rich because it produces world-class graduates that go on to do great things.

These high-achievers often become rich, and when they do so, many reward Stanford with large donations that help keep it right up at the very top.

So, maybe its time to allow universities to get back to doing what they do best. Teaching and doing top class research – not necessarily with a potential commercial angle.

It is important that attention is again paid to the quality of graduates, in general, emerging from our universities, not just on developing PhDs.

It is more likely that the graduates that do not go on to do PhDs, are going to be the ones that start new companies that produce jobs into the future.

So, let’s stop kidding ourselves. Capturing IP in the universities and seeking to commercialise everything that moves at 3rd-level is not going to solve all our problems. A knowledge economy cannot be driven only by the universities.