Are universities and industry strange bedfellows or a good match? Science & Policy Exchange guest blog #2

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Rana Alrabi is blogging from this year’s Science & Policy Exchange / Dialogue sciences et politiques conference, which runs today in the McGill Faculty Club. Here are some observations from a panel entitled “Partnership: university, industry, and small business: How does the university culture need to adapt to favour wealth generation?”

This panel was marked by a range of views about the university’s original objective and the risks associated with the relationship with industry.

Anton Allahar, author of Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (2011) and Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis (2007), expressed his strong concern that intellectual curiosity in universities is being dangerously eroded in the face of the increasingly “corporatised university” equipped with fast food, designer clothing  and electronics vendors (and, in some universities, tanning salons): “The private university produces private goods.” Allahar champions a public university where ideas are pursued as ends to themselves, even if the ideas are unpopular. He asked the panel and the audience to consider, “As university becomes commercialized, what determines quality in education?” He asserted that university should teach how to challenge authority in a civil manner in order to adequately address life’s challenges. “University is to educate—and the etymology of educate means to carry out of ignorance—not to train; training happens in industry, just like a graduate in medicine will do his residence training in the hospital.”

Dr. Rose Goldstein, McGill’s VP (Research and International Relations), favours the business-friendly approach whereby the university makes itself more accessible and open to relationships with industry. In response to the threat of commercialization of university, she says that curiosity-driven research need not be mutually exclusive with working with industry and that identifying and managing partnerships with like-minded industry members is key.

McGill chemistry professor David Burns supports what he refers to as a hybrid model where an intermediary office manages academic research goals and industry goals. (Editor’s note: Professor Burns’ research has led to the start-up company Molecular Biometrics, which we’ve featured in the magazine.)

Other panel participants were moderator Laurent Viau (former president of the Conseil national des cycles supérieurs of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec) and Andre Bazergui (former president and CEO of the Consortium for Research and Innovation in Aerospace in Quebec).

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