Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Nurturing innovation, or why we need to kiss more frogs

Sir John O'Reilly, VC, Cranfield University, promises to touch on a number of different topics, seemingly randomly. Which is a handy excuse for a blogger - any randomness that follows was 'im, not me. Sir John is speaking about rebooting UK HE, from the perspective of the VC of a wholly postgraduate STEM university (he gives yet another definition of the M in ST(E)M - in this case, management).

He starts by noting that, in recent news stories, "students" and "higher education" have almost entirely meant undergraduate - even HEPI's Higher Education Supply and Demand document was focussed on undergraduate demands and provision. HEFCE funding per student fell substantially through the 1990s, despite the government's recognition of the importance of the knowledge economy, and we now know that several universities will begin charging high-end fees from next year. Only undergraduate students can access the Student Loans Company's "favourable" arrangements; what will the climate be for postgraduate students?

Sir John uses Langton's Ant to demonstrate emergence, as a cipher for the complexity of the higher education system: a simple algorithm at the heart of a complex system that generates unpredictable behaviour and unintended consequences. For example, the line between teaching and research is convenient but arbitrary, and the two are symbiotic - weaken the research base, and the teaching will be poor. But likewise: weaken the teaching base, and the research will be poorer.

Drawing this together, Sir John asserts that the changes in funding of postgraduate education may have the unintended consequence of weakening the research output of our universities - which in turn will weaken innovation, which will in due course weaken the economy. "The princess and the frog" can be used as metaphor for knowledge transfer; to find a prince, you have to kiss a lot of frogs. We must be careful not to disrupt inappropriately the research and innovation agenda and our ability to address it in England. "We are in the business of kissing frogs, to ensure that the future generation has its princes of wealth creation." As Jane Harvell, one of UKSG tweeters puts it, "all this is not news for us working in HE, but it does need saying, and is best said by a Vice Chancellor."

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