Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Innovation

November 28

Swings of the Pendulum

I see that Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class has been given a tenth anniversary re-release. This book was enormously influential in re-casting regional economic development with an urban-hipster ethos. “Downtowns are the bomb,” the argument went. “Do whatever you can to get as many talented people as you can to knock up against each other in a dense urban setting and economic growth will occur like magic.” Part Alfred Marshall, part Jane Jacobs, this argument struck a chord with the right-on crowd, especially in universities. All of a sudden, the thing to do in higher education was to have some kind of major urban tech-transfer place, attracting both scientifics and creatives. Hence MaRS. Hence all that incredibly cool stuff Ryerson is doing these days, creating tech incubators and buying up the scuzzy parts of Yonge Street.

In fact, this is all now so de rigeur that it is almost completely forgotten how entirely antithetical all of it is to the major traditions of higher education.

From the earliest times, universities were “cities apart,” deliberately separated from the world at large so as to ensure space for contemplation. In Europe, universities were separated from their surrounding cities by a wall. In the U.S., many universities were founded in rural idylls, away from the hurly burly of city life (Exhibit A: Dartmouth). So prevalent was the notion of “apartness” as a determinant of erudition that when it came time to build real “Science Cities” after World War II, they did so not in downtowns, but out in suburbs like Palo Alto, Boston’s Route 128 and the North Carolina Research Triangle.

Why the ‘burbs? Partly it was because at the time that’s where the intellectual elite who were staffing these Science Cities liked to live. But also, it was because that was where land was cheapest. And that’s the problem with these new hyper-urban incubator zones. You can buy a lot more economic growth for your dollar in the ‘burbs than you can downtown. As interesting and invigorating as MaRS and the Ryerson property-spree are, you have to wonder: can all those spin-offs really thrive while paying downtown Toronto rents? The availability and cost of land adjacent to the university matters when it comes to tech transfer. In fact, it might in fact be a pretty good long-term predictor of a school’s innovation potential. That’s why universities like UBC, U Alberta and U Saskatchewan may have some serious advantages in the innovation game going forward.

The open, urban university is a greater historical anomaly than the secluded campus at the edge of town, for economic reasons as well as cultural ones. Don’t bet on urban campuses being permanently fashionable.

November 22

A Shift in Rhetoric on Innovation

Could a shift in thinking about innovation lead to a radical reduction in university research budgets?

Time was, universities could tell a pretty simple story about innovation. Give money to talented people in universities (preferably “world-class” ones), and let them work on interesting projects. Through the magic of peer-reviewed publication, knowledge will be transferred, entrepreneurs will get cool ideas for products, and massive innovation and productivity growth will ensue. But while universities argue for better funding because technological booms based on university-developed technologies (e.g, computers and the internet) are regular occurrences, it seems fewer and fewer people are agreeing with that story.

While it’s undeniable that long-run productivity is related to levels of investment in R&D, the idea that university research specifically has this effect isn’t a well-tested empirical proposition. Actually, much of the case for that basically comes down to university presidents pointing at Stanford and Silicon Valley and saying “we could do that, too, if we had enough money.”

So far, governments have bought this shtick. But there’s been a notable shift in tone in among innovation wonks over the last year or so. Instead of talk about spillovers from public research, what’s “in” these days is talk about the inevitable entrepreneurial explosion that will happen as a couple of billion new consumers start interacting with the global market place. For instance, check out Vijay Vaitheeswaran’s Need, Speed and Greed, Philip Auerswald’s The Coming Prosperity and Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine.

Here’s partly what’s going on: ICTs are what’s known as an “enabling technology” – that is, a broad technology whose effects extend over a huge swath of the economy. There haven’t been many of these in history: writing, the steam engine, electricity, etc. When one comes along, it takes a long time for people to work out how to use it in ways that raise productivity. Electricity was first deployed in the economy for things like the telegraph. Its economic potential as a power source wasn’t really exploited for another 50 years or so, when factories were gradually re-organized to take advantage of electrification. After a big burst of “pure” research at the start, gains began to depend on more “applied” types of research.

We may be at a similar point with computers; that is, the gains to productivity for the next decade or two are more likely to come more from development than from research. If so, that radically changes the outlook for university research funding. There’s likely to be less of it, and a greater proportion of what’s left will go to more applied projects.

Something to ponder, anyway.

October 31

Reforming J-Schools

I see that a number of foundations – including the Knight, McCormick and Scripps-Howard Foundation– have written an open letter  to American university presidents, urging that they make Journalism schools “more like medical schools” and teaching them through immersion in “clinical, hands-on, real-life experience”. From a historical perspective, this is a deeply weird development.

Foundations have played a significant role in changing the course of professional education on a couple of occasions. In 1910, the American Medical Association and the Carnegie Foundation teamed up to pay Abraham Flexner to report on the state of medical education in North America. His finding – that medical schools were too vocational an insufficiently grounded in scientific disciplines such as biology – was a key development in the history of medicine. It was only after Flexner that university-based medical schools decisively ousted the proprietary medical schools as the primary locus of training future doctors, and turned the medical profession into one which mixed practice with research.

Forty-five years later, widespread dissatisfaction with American business schools led the Carnegie and Ford Foundations to instigate reports and programs designed to transform business schools into more research-oriented units with intimate links to various branches of the social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and economics. These had substantial short-and medium-term impacts, if more ambiguous long-term ones.

(On this, btw, I recommend The Roots, Rhetoric and Reality of Change: North American Business Schools since WWII by March and Augier. It ends flabbily, but the first 200 pages are excellent intellectual history).

In both cases professional education was to be improved by making it more “disciplinary” and more concerned with “fundamental knowledge”. It’s therefore more than passing strange that Foundations are now telling universities to make their J-schools less concerned with fundamental knowledge and more concerned with day-to-day experience.

Partly, it’s a different in the nature of the Foundations involved (Carnegie and Ford were considerably more removed from the worlds of medicine and business than the Scripps Howard Foundation is from journalism). Part of it, too, might be the nature of journalism itself; its practitioners may simply not need fundamental knowledge in order to be effective in the way doctors need biology and business-folks need econ/finance. (By extension, maybe journalism shouldn’t be taught in a university setting at all.)

What is unmistakable though – and more than slightly worrying – is the flat-out threatening tone taken by the Foundations in their letter, telling Presidents that institutions which don’t get with the program “will find it difficult to raise funds from Foundations concerned with the future of news”. Apart from being classless, a touch more humility about proclaiming any given educational model as the One True Way is surely in order.

October 19

More Korean Lessons

Higher education is an inherently conservative industry – it’s extremely rare to come across something genuinely new and unique in the field. Which is precisely why Korea’s so interesting: it has a number of genuine system innovations, particularly in lifelong learning, from which a lot of countries could learn.

Koreans have what some commentators call “education fever”; as in many Confucian countries, the sacrifices families make to ensure their children get an education are almost incomprehensible to North Americans. But until the early 1980s, the opportunities to obtain higher education were quite limited. As the system began to expand, there was an enormous explosion of pent-up demand, and not just among the young: people in mid-career also wanted to get the education that was previously unavailable.

Institutions couldn’t cope with the demand, and even if they could, they were wedded to an elite cohort intake model, and the idea of working people coming in to study part-time sat uneasily with that. So the Korean government came up with two alternatives. One was to create a number of “self-study” degree programs; essentially allowing the individuals to get a degree from the ministry by simply writing a set of challenge exams. The other was to create a “Credit Bank” – essentially a degree-granting organization of last resort, which would allow individuals unable to attend regular university and college programs to obtain Bachelor or associate degrees by piecing together credits from multiple institutions, both physical and online (though, interestingly, the credit bank’s biggest current problem is policing online learning providers, the worry being that inadequate invigilation and the potential for fraud will eventually devalue the credit bank’s degrees if they keep accepting such credits).

I know, what a great idea, right? Such a neat solution to the problem of credit transfer. But though this system bears a lot of resemblance to the fantasies of DIY higher education fanatics in that it breaks the monopoly of traditional education providers, it’s not exactly a majority taste. Despite being able to provide degrees in a manner which is cheaper and/or more convenient than the alternatives, only about 6% of all degrees provided last year in Korea came through the credit bank and the self-study Bachelor’s.

The reason for that is pretty simple, and one that the Great Disruption types need to keep in mind: people prefer the prestige of a regular degree from a regular university. Just because someone invents something new and cool doesn’t mean people’s preferences are necessarily going to change, even if it means lower costs and/or more convenience. Korea just goes to show that in a battle between educational innovation and educational prestige, one should always bet on the latter.

Annyeong hikyeseyo!

May 31

Architecture and the Role of the University

Robert Hutchins, a former president of the University of Chicago, once described the university as “a collection of departments tied together by a common steam plant.” There’s some truth to this. Most academics will profess more loyalty to a discipline than an institution. Disciplines fight amongst each other for resources and the departmental structure they occupy has enormous possibilities for empire building. The only thing that really unites them is the heating plant (and perhaps the Finance and HR people that keep the paycheques coming).

The role of the university as a corporate entity, though, is not just to facilitate disciplines doing their own thing. Rather it is to tie them together by creating synergies between them; in particular by supporting research strengths in one area by building other strengths in allied departments. Got great legal scholars working on water rights? Make sure your next hires in engineering and geography are hydrologists. And so on.

Lots of universities are starting to do these kinds of things, but there’s a challenge: even if you have the potential for cross-disciplinary collaborations, how do you actually make collaboration happen? How do you increase the odds of serendipity?

The answer – well, one of the answers, anyway – is architecture.

Bell Labs had that figured out in the 1940s. When they built their new HQ at Murray Hill, it was designed so as to ensure that everyone was more or less in everyone’s way so that there would be enormous potential for individuals to run into one another and have fruitful conversations (if you’re an innovation buff and haven’t picked up Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation yet, do so: it’s a gas.).

Frank Gehry did something similar when designing the Ray and Mary Stata Center at MIT. He gave it glass-walled labs to encourage openness, allocated most of the lower floor space for collaborative purposes, and gave faculty members offices on the upper floors so they could – like orangutans (Gehry’s analogy, not mine) – retreat to higher spaces to think when collaboration was done, while still being able to monitor the social space below.

Canadian institutions, it seems to me, are a bit conservative about this. Not that the last decade of building hasn’t produced some spectacular buildings (I’m a huge fan of the U of T Pharmacy Building); but it doesn’t seem like a lot of it has been built with collaboration in mind. There are exceptions, of course – the Academic Health Sciences Centre at the University of Saskatchewan is an example. But they’re not as frequent as one would hope.

Architecture is a key ingredient in innovation. Ignore it at your cost.

October 18

Well, That Was Interesting

The Report of the Expert Panel on R&D, that is. It’s an intriguing and well-written piece of work (kudos to Peter Nicholson), at least as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does.

There are three things this report does extremely well: i) it explains the mind-boggling number of tiny programs the federal government supports, ii) it graphically shows how the Scientific Research and Experimental Development program massively overshadows all other panels combined and iiI), it amusingly tells the government in no uncertain terms that the bit in their mandate about evaluating the relative effectiveness of programs was a crock because no data exists to allow such a comparison.

(Seriously – read the first three pages of chapter 5, because they set a whole new standard in expert panels rejecting the premise of their terms of reference.)

Those pieces of fabulousness aside, the panel came up with six main recommendations and a bunch of subsidiary ones, which you can find in short form here. Some of them are completely innocuous, such as “encouraging more collaboration” and “simplifying forms”; some are only mildly innocuous, like “having a national dialogue about innovation.” Some of them are neither innocuous nor radical but simply overdue, especially the recommendations on improving venture capital funding.

Others are more radical, such as the creation of a one-stop shop known as the Industrial Research and Innovation Council. The effectiveness of such bodies have to be taken somewhat on faith; single-windows have their advantages, but they depend on effective management which not all arms-length organizations have. The most intriguing proposed mandate given to this body is the creation of a national “business innovation talent strategy.” It’s a fascinating idea, which depends on a great deal of co-operation between several ministries across two levels of government plus educational institutions. There’s some potential for crashing and burning here – but potential for real innovation breakthroughs as well.

The headline recommendation, though, has to be the call to “transform” the National Research Council, though a process which skeptics might call “asset stripping.” Basically, all 17 of its institutes are to be either incorporated into a government agency, turned into a non-profit or integrated with a university or universities. University government relations offices should have a ball with that last one: let the lobbying begin!

But most amazing of all – there is nothing in the recommendations about any of the NSERC or tri-council programs that were included in the review. Not. One. Word.

How did that happen? My guess is we’ll never find out. But I’ll bet it’s a really good story.

October 17

The Future of Canadian R&D – Round One

The Mowat Institute showed some canny timing by releasing its paper, Canada’s Innovation Underperformance: Whose Policy Problem Is It?, on the Friday before the federal government’s Research and Development Review Panel reports. It was a real master-class in media management.

The report, authored by Tijs Creutzberg, doesn’t break a lot of new ground; in many ways it’s just a lit review, albeit a very nicely-written one. Basically, it argues two things: i) that our government innovation strategies are overly biased towards tax-credits and make insufficient use of direct cash support and ii) that there is too much overlap between federal and provincial policy instruments.

Though the first issue got the lion’s share of the media attention Friday, it’s actually the place where the report is thinnest. The report’s “evidence” basically consists of one graph which shows Canada as a policy outlier in its reliance on tax credits (not news if you’ve been keeping up with the OECD literature), and two paper citations on the benefits of direct subsidies over tax credits (one of which, if you bother to look it up, actually says nothing at all about the relative efficacy of direct support versus tax credits). Creutzberg may well be right about this, but on the evidence presented, it’s hard to tell.

On the second issue – that of carving more rational policy roles for the federal and provincial government – Creutzberg oozes good sense about the importance of place and regions in research, and then comes up with an eminently logical way of dividing up policy responsibilities between the two. The problem is that some of the recommendations come off sounding a tad too idealistic. However sensible it might be to get the federal government out of direct cluster-specific subsidies or for provinces to abjure sector-specific tax credits, it’s really, really hard to imagine it ever happening. Forget theories of federalism – those programs win votes, and politicians don’t give up vote-winners easily.

Untouched in Creutzberg’s paper is the issue of how all those federal billions that go to university research play into our research and innovation system. That is likely going to be the centerpiece of today’s paper from the Expert Panel. There’s a serious air of anticipation about this report; despite rumours of a divided panel not a single leak has taken place, which in Ottawa is about as rare as a Senators’ playoff run. It should be interesting.

Tune in tomorrow for more.

October 11

Two Memes About Science

The last few weeks have seen the emergence of two very interesting memes about science, both of which have the potential to radically re-shape higher education.

The first is from Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist famed for having invested early in Facebook. Yes, he often comes off as a self-promoting jerk, but a recent speech he made on the subject of the slowdown in the development of technology (and the associated National Review article) is very much worth reading. Riffing off Tyler Cowen’s recent e-book The Great Stagnation, Thiel argues that innovation is stalling, and that technology investments are no longer resulting in improvements in living standards. It’s more of a narrative argument than an empirical one, but it’s thought-provoking nonetheless.

The other big new meme comes from the Special Report in this week’s issue of the Economist. In it, Martin Giles makes the argument that technology is increasingly being driven not by research trickling down from universities and government laboratories but rather from individual firms working in consumer technology.

Ever since Vannevar Bush wrote Science: the Endless Frontier right after World War II, the idea that government investment in inquiry-driven, university-hosted science would drive the scientific progress that would ensure permanent economic prosperity has been the bedrock of higher education funding policy in America (and later, much of the OECD as well, including Canada). Thiel’s and Giles’s arguments both challenge this idea. Basically, they both posit that science à la Bush isn’t working – that development is no longer reliant on research (Giles) and that development isn’t delivering much anyway (Thiel).

If either of them are right – and it’s not a settled issue, obviously – some very profound questions arise. Most notably: why fund university research, or at least, why fund it to the degree and in the manner we presently do? It’s a question more and more people in Ottawa are asking anyway, given the relatively meager commercialization outputs of over a decade of unprecedented S & T spending through programs like the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Coincidentally, the Expert Panel reviewing federal R&D spending is expected to report next Monday. I hear that all has not been smooth among the panelists and that they may not be presenting a unanimous report.

Looks like science policy in Canada is about to get a whole lot more interesting.

August 22

What We’re Reading Now – The Innovative University

If you’ve had the faintest contact with management theory in the last 15 years, you’ve probably heard of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and originator of the theory of disruptive innovation.  A couple of years ago, he teamed up with a co-writer to look at K-12 education in Disrupting Class, and now he’s done the same for universities with Henry Eyring in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.

There are a couple of reasons you’ll want to read this book.  One is because everyone else is doing it, and you won’t want to be clued out.  For instance, le tout Washington seems to have read it; various worthies including Assistant Secretary of State Ochoa seem to be dropping bon mots from the book at will.

And two is because the first hundred pages or so are a very interesting look at Harvard’s historical development, the innovations it undertook under Presidents Eliot, Lowell and Conant from 1869 to 1953 (that’s right – three presidents in 84 years) and how they formed the blueprint for higher education across North America ever since.  It’s as enjoyable a slice of educational history as we’ve ever read.

It’s also very instructive (if sometimes lacking in concrete detail)  on how certain ingrained traditions in academia – notably the way new courses  and programs are approved – have a way of radically escalating costs, and it shows some interesting ways in which institutions can reduce expenditures through better process.  Even if you don’t buy the theory that online providers pose some sort of existential threat to universities (and we don’t, by the way), or that Brigham Young University – Idaho represents some sort of new paradigm in education (it’s an interesting case study but probably not much more), cost containment is still an important issue and on that score this books provides plenty of food for thought.

Page 5 of 512345