Red tape is stifling innovation at public universities

Australian public universities tout themselves as bastions of innovation and driving forces behind economic growth, but their cultures are getting in the way.

Imagine being an entrepreneur who had spent more than 12 months scouring the globe for a particular research expertise, only to discover at a random cocktail party that the know-how you’re looking for could be found just down the road.

Or being an industry innovation expert trying to connect with a research group you’d invested in without success. There was simply no individual, telephone contact or email address publicly available.

Unfortunately, these are both documented stories highlighting the kind of obstacles faced by the private sector when trying to work with public universities in Australia.

It would therefore come as no surprise to people in the sector that universities seem to have been largely ignored in recent innovation funding announcements.

There are several potential reasons why public universities have been marginalised in the innovation landscape.

The compliance culture that has dogged Australian government-innovation initiatives, especially when it comes to quantifying research outcomes, also dogs the increasingly managerialist public universities in Australia.

A glaring example of the way this compliance culture stifles academic researchers engaging in potentially groundbreaking research is the increasingly bureaucratic approaches to ethics approval, even if the proposed research is low risk, and time is of the essence.

Many academics are simply giving up on research based on primary data collection and are focusing on arguably less innovative and entrepreneurial research based on publicly-available data sources.

There have been instances of “ethics-shopping” in research groups comprising academics from multiple institutions, whereby the ethics clearance was submitted to the university with the least onerous process.

There was also an instance where an innovative small enterprise that had secured government funding and connected with a university for research found itself in breach of its reporting requirements simply because the university department could not produce an acquittal in time.

Not only are university bureaucracies risk-averse, they are inefficient when it comes to maintaining industry-level standards of reporting.

Experiences such as this are likely to give the private sector pause when it comes to determining whether they should continue working with public universities.

The innovation environment is, by its very nature, uncertain and risky.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, one of the world’s leading scholars in this area, recently met with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and promoted her ‘mission-oriented’ approach to innovation in the hope of promoting economic growth.

Professor Mazzucato favours the “fail fast” approach that innovators and entrepreneurs take, which is increasingly at odds with a risk-averse university culture focused on quantitative metrics, box ticking and assured outcomes, and which would see “failure” as a missed opportunity, to the extent that they would not likely invest in the same research team again.

Closely related to the growing compliance culture of the corporatised public university are the restrictions placed around what academic researchers should or shouldn’t research.

This usually takes the form of the granting or withholding of research funding by university administrators, including all-important seed funding that is often required to test proof of concept.

Public universities generally align themselves with the stated research priorities of the incumbent government, which are themselves also closely tied with funding.

This approach prevents discoveries emanating from blue-sky research pursued by researchers practising academic freedom and following their instincts.

Instead, institutional research parameters are tightly constrained through the nomination of national research priorities, with university administrators turning themselves inside out to maximise the potential available funding.

Many academics find themselves being taken on mandated research journeys, even if their hearts (and heads) are not in it something which can clearly compromise research outcomes.

Academic careers also present a problem. University academics need to juggle multiple work responsibilities, with research performance often suffering in a workplace environment that privileges teaching and service.

Academics also tend to take leave more frequently than industry partners, something which can stall the development of applied research, and raises questions about overall commitment in the eyes of industry.

Many Australian universities have innovation hubs that are either administered directly or are an adjunct organisation co-located on campus or nearby.

However, entities that arguably should be the most nimble and innovative demonstrated significant vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic revealed weaknesses regarding the resilience of these university hubs, with hub managers reportedly being unable to resolve a number of operational challenges.

Several hubs ceased operating, at least temporarily, and failed to pivot effectively to an online environment that was necessary to maintain connections with industry.

Such hubs, far from being at the vanguard of pandemic responses, were found wanting.

The multi-layered difficulties faced by universities and entrepreneurs alike, resist a glib, one-size-fits all response.

As a start perhaps, less top-down direction and strategic planning and more fostering of grassroots innovation would likely help, as would embracing a culture of greater risk-taking, within reason, of course.

How universities reward and incentivise their researchers also needs to be put under the spotlight. Better ways to link industry, especially small and medium enterprises and start-ups, are also required.

If public universities are unable to adapt to an innovation environment where an ability to accept risk, form strong teams quickly and work at a commercially-acceptable pace is paramount, it is likely that they will recede further into the innovation shadows.

This is likely to result in further questions regarding their overall public legitimacy and as a consequence continued funding. 

( By Michael B. Charles and David Noble, Southern Cross University in Gold Coast)