Saturday, June 30, 2007

Innovation, universities and skills

The first days in power haven't been all that rosy for Gordon Brown. Half the island is submerged after the rainiest June in history, more British soldiers have died in Iraq, and now terrorists were extremely close to blowing up parts of central London. And almost as to mark the event of having a Scottish prime minister, someone has just tried to drive into the Glasgow airport with a burning Jeep. Wasn't there supposed to be a "honeymoon" for the new cabinet?

But besides these headlines, the are some interesting news coming from the new cabinet. Of course, as the reshuffle was complete, but in addition to the heavy metal musical chairs that Brown orchestrated, there were some interesting changes to the actual portfolios and departments. As a response to the intensifying global competition, Brown has decided to re-organise the education and science departments. The old Department for Education and Skills (DfES) is now history, and it is replaced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the Dept. for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The buzzword of late, innovation, now makes its appearance on departmental level and in a job title for a cabinet minister. But this is more than just more work for plague-makers, as the new DIUS will get the innovation and science -bits from the Department of Trade and Industry, thus bringing the universities and innovation closer together. This could be seen as a move to emphasise the research part of universities, and also the nature of university education as being different from the education provided in schools up to the age of 18-19. The Universities UK are enthusiastic about these changes, and it does seem like the gearshift in the science policy that Brown has been promising.

But back to the buzzword. Nowhere has innovation been talked about so much as in Finland. There are of course some results to merit the hype, but when it comes to government policies, the hot air to hot stuff -ratio is still quite poor. Along the lines of what has now been done in Britain, there have been several suggestions to either form a Ministry of Science and Research or at least appoint a minister that would exclusively look after science, but so far to no avail. Currently, research and science is in the portfolio of the minister of education, along with schools, high schools etc., making it a very heavy portfolio indeed.The question is, does science therefore receive the attention and focus it should? Also, the various sector research centres (like the Finnish version of the Met Office and about two dozen others) are under the care of the corresponding sector ministries. The purposefulness of this organisation and the structure and deeds of these centres have been questioned as well, and there have been several attempts to sort their situation out.

Alas, so far the structural reforms in the Finnish ministries have focused on the trade, industry and employment issues. But interestingly, these were to some degree motivated by similar worries about competitiveness and globalisation. But there are reforms brewing in the Finnish university sector as well, as the new "Innovation university" is being formed by merging the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Arts and Design Helsinki. The merger is of course ground-breaking but also interesting because of the new form of ownership this introduces to the Finnish higher education. This is not a government department like the rest of the unis, but a foundation based university, where private companies have a major stake in addition to the public investment. Finally, some desperately needed structural innovation in the Finnish higher education... I hope the innovation university will deliver and the foundation model will become the standard.

But still, we'd benefit from having a minister of science and research running a ministry that would consist of the science policy unit of the ministry of education, the innovation sections of the new behemoth ministry of industry. This unit could also take on the task for administrating the sector research units, after they go through their necessary restructuring.

No comments: