The innovation game in higher ed

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It is a frequent cry from politicians, vice chancellors, industry leaders and educators that they want to see innovation in higher ed. I mean, who is against innovation? But the rhetoric for the need for innovation is rarely backed up by practice that will encourage it. Innovation doesn’t just arise from nowhere, and what we increasingly have in higher ed is a context of conflicting narratives. These are the demand for (or reprimand for the lack of) innovation on one side and the efficiency, accountability narrative on the other.

I was reminded of this conflict again today when reading an article(via Laura Pasquini) which reports in a study which they constructed a network from biomedical and chemistry publications. They mapped knowledge that was innovative, ie added new connections to the network and those which built on prior knowledge. They found that “while researchers who pursue riskier academic work may not be published as frequently, if published, their work receives more citations.”

The conclusion they draw is that the push to publish for the sake of fulfilling metrics, as promoted by the REF, and most tenure track processes, actively works against innovation. I haven’t studied their paper, so maybe those conclusions aren’t valid, but if so, it marks a peculiar triumph of the measurement approach. The very reason we developed academic publishing in the first place (to share knowledge and encourage innovation) now acts against innovation occurring.

This is an example of the conflicting narrative we encounter in higher ed. While innovation has never been more highly valued, the context within which it occurs has never been so focused on efficiency and control. It is difficult to allow innovation to flourish if other parts of the system are rewarded for tight control (think of what you may want to explore with IT services versus how they are being measured in terms of performance, or if the route to promotion discourages failure. You can have a culture that foregrounds innovation or one that foregrounds efficiency. You can’t have both. And that’s fine, maybe we should focus on efficiency. But if we do so, it’s then a bit off to be derided by industry leaders for a lack of innovation. Innovation generally requires people to be given some freedom, and a lack of monitoring. And which leaders are brave enough to give up monitoring?

It isn’t always about money, incentives aren’t that effective as motivators for innovation. However, when there are two narratives in competition then the one which relates most directly to job security, or money, becomes a deciding factor. And that tends to favour the efficiency narrative. So you can’t blame academics for focusing on this, at the expense of innovation. It’s what all the context markers are telling them to do.


  1. The hegemony of neoliberal discourse has u talking about measurement, accountability and efficiency in edu as if they are inevitable or necessary.

    I posit they need not be

    Nor does innovation necessarily need to be a good thing – not only because it will often produce failures (that’s actually ok) but because much innovation isn’t for the “greater good”.

    So even tho I like the dichotomy you are creating here, I feel that the important question not being asked is “in the service of which values do we encourage innovation vs efficiency” and “which criteria do we use to judge whether innovation or efficiency are best in which context?”

    Because it’s contextual. Neither is always good; both are often bad. Some contexts require more of one or the other. What else is there beyond those two? The actual real learning that takes place that isn’t related to innovation and escapes the superficial measurability standards. It takes place in spite of it

    Or i am over philosophizing. Something to discuss w u at #opened15 perhaps? Haha

  2. Hi Maha – you are, of course, correct. But that’s probably another blog post. Or maybe it isn’t. The context we work in seems to have these two competing narratives, but that doesn’t mean we should accept they are the _only_ narratives. And you are quite right about innovation – it is posited as an unalloyed good, but that is not always the case. Innovations in forms of mass warfare for instance are not a great thing.

  3. I completely take Maha’s point about innovation not necessarily being a good thing, or rather, always a success, but I don’t think that suppressing or stifling it is a very useful alternative, unless we are convinced that we can’t do anything better than we do already. So I think ideally we want to create conditions of possibility for it to happen, so that we can evaluate what was good or bad about it. I guess I am advocating more of a learning design approach in which we work iteratively and incrementally rather than thinking in terms of ‘innovation projects’ that try out something new which then vanishes away along with the funding. But one of the big issues with the efficiency discourse is that doesn’t only act to divert resources away from innovation, it actually eliminates resources from the equation. And when this happens you have bigger problems than not being innovative.

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