Statu Pupillari?

It concerns me that Universities are now being expected to act as sources, sometimes the only sources, of invention. I don’t really see this as their job (which is surely about discovering and communicating new knowledge). The argument runs along the lines of

“We taxpayers spent a huge amount of money on research and so now it’s time that it resulted in lots of jobs.” It doesn’t work like that at all, but many of our politicians act as if it did. Universities, for the most part, screen out inventiveness…it’s very hard to get a draft paper or a grant application through the peer review process (especially when it’s all anonymous and so supports gutless competitive sniping).

One of the most irritating recent developments is that Universities are starting to claim ownership of their students’ intellectual property by default. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the discussion about whether IP can be meaningfully defined (it’s obviously not the same as other forms of property). I’m hearing stories on campuses about Universities which, when they allow a graduate student to matriculate, assume ownership of everything which they think up during their time at the Institution. Undergraduates aren’t yet included in this process, but they may well soon get trapped too (I just came across this article which says that US Universities demand to own even undergraduate inventions…despite the rates charged by these institutions for access to tuition and facilities. This is bare-faced, short-termist profiteering -Universities don’t make people have ideas).

A student appears, filled with enthusiasm at getting a place on an interesting Master’s or a high profile Doctoral programme. They are routinely asked to sign lots of administrative forms (with no independent guidance). One of these will, either implicitly or in small print, be an agreement that the University owns all their intellectual output until they leave.

The law, in the UK, says that employees have no choice in this. You sign up to get a salary and they own what you create (at least if it’s related to what they pay you for, even if you do it at the weekend). I think that’s unfair but at least it’s clear (and these days, some farsighted employers are beginning to understand that a meaningful revenue sharing scheme is a good way to motivate smart employees). Postdocs? Guess what, you have to do the dirty work with little chance of a real job and they own everything you think up.

Graduate students aren’t employees, however. They don’t in general get a salary, nor do they therefore have employment rights. I was once discussed, in a University committee, as “having ideas incompatible with my status as a research student.” As if there are some modes of thought only accessible to Professors…how patronising. It is true that a graduate student may be sponsored by some business and receive direction and support from an inspiring supervisor. Whenever that’s true, then certainly all parties must share in any profit from the ideas generated. Universities often offer revenue sharing schemes (although the deals on offer look like nothing that anyone would negotiate on their own behalf, being laughably one-sided). They may also provide a measure of protection for graduate students who might be accused of infringement by eg some patent troll or nowinnofee attorney. Inevitably, this would result in an out of court settlement, (ie goodbye IP) since UK universities have always backed down from such litigation.

The real issue I have with this process, which is becoming increasingly common as Universities scrabble to do whatever Government tells them, is not even the sleight of hand at matriculation -it’s the inbuilt assumption that a University can somehow make money from its students’ inventions…that it understands how to…that it has the grit and focus necessary to do so. This is usually fantasy and the financial data on exploitation support this conclusion. That is exactly why certain Universities, the ones with business ability, are now forming their own commercialisation companies, free of academic control.

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