Universities should be innovative, academic says – ‘Meeting the needs of society is crucial’

By Amelia Naidoo, Campus Notes Editor
Published: 00:00 November 27, 2011

To become innovation-driven institutions, universities need to understand what a country’s government, communities and business needs are and respond accordingly, Dr Kamiel Gabriel, Research Division Manager at Abu Dhabi Education Council, stressed to academics and business leaders recently.

He was speaking on ‘Innovation in Higher Education: Pathway to Building an Innovation-driven Society’ at INSEAD’s Abu Dhabi campus.

Although most people think innovation is about technology, it has a significant impact on education, health, reducing adverse environmental effects, cultural and societal advancements and improving the lives of citizens.

Universities have a role to play in innovation in collaboration with governments and businesses, he said.

Much of a knowledge-based or innovation-driven economy depends on advances in science and has a high level of business sophistication across the fabric of society. Gabriel said.

“Science should be seen not just for education — it should be seen as resource and universities must ensure science goes beyond the classroom.”

While scientists invent, the rest of society transforms and translates this into economic and social benefits, he explained.

Ivory towers

While universities have a role to educate students, they should also align themselves with the needs of a society, government and business while also embracing new ways of doing things. This also ensures institutions are not seen as ivory towers.

“When we talk about innovation systems, we are looking at interconnectivity so institutions work hand in hand with the public sector and the community to advance the causes of the community and their aspirations,” said Gabriel.

“Universities have to work and stitch around the community’s needs. Otherwise we will continue to be seen as ivory towers.”

Effective participation and an understanding of the needs of the business community is also crucial “whether it is solving the problem of homelessness or producing the next version of Blackberry”.

Research incubators

Universities also have to move from the realm of research to commercial business opportunities, said Gabriel, and this means taking ideas beyond the laboratory.

Ways to do this include technology transfer offices and seeking funding to build research incubators but these activities need to have the end user in mind.

Gabriel said Abu Dhabi and the UAE, which has seen new institutions and companies established, are in a position to do things and think about who benefits from teaching and research.

According to Gabriel, universities can achieve economic success by having:

  • Specialisation and differentiation — recognising true institutional excellence
  • Focused graduate programme expansions that feed into priority areas
  • New approach to faculty contract length and compensation to attract and retain top-notch researchers and scientists
  • Incorporate intellectual property approaches that maximise economic benefit and encourage entrepreneurs.