Research Autonomy and Industry Engagement: A Case Study of Two New Zealand Universities

Joshua Sarpong
The University of Auckland

Cathy Gunn
The University of Auckland

Sean Sturm
The University of Auckland

With the emergence of the knowledge economy, universities are seen as key actors in national innovation systems (Gornitzka, 2008; Metcalfe, 2010). This suggests that the contribution of academic research to a country is important, as the new knowledge produced can help increase its competitive advantage. Thus, many universities around the world have accepted that they have an economic contribution to make to society, as well as educating the next generation of citizens and adding to the global store of knowledge. Enacting this role requires links between academic research and external stakeholders, especially in industry. However, such engagement may result in universities becoming beholden to industry and their research autonomy being eroded. It is argued that research autonomy allows universities to generate the knowledge and skills that are essential for the future wealth and culture of a civilised society by following knowledge wherever it leads, and not just responding to the short-term commercial needs of industry (Aronowitz & Giroux, 2000). On the contrary, it is argued that, in an era of decreasing government research funding, industrial collaboration can strengthen the autonomy of universities by enriching them with the resources required to strengthen their research mission (Clark, 1998). The guiding question of this paper is, therefore, does universities’ interaction with industry compromise or strengthen their research autonomy?
We report on an ongoing study that involved interviews with twenty-six research leaders and academic staff in selected faculties from the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology. We also analysed documents including the universities’ strategic plans, annual reports, research policies, and the 1989 Education Act of New Zealand. Among our findings are that, although working with industry may occasionally result in detrimental effects on research autonomy such as the suppression of publications, the universities found the process generally rewarding. In the face of insufficient government research funding and increasing financial demands on the universities, urgent steps are needed to diversify income sources, including funding from industry. Contributing to the transition of New Zealand’s economy from agriculture-dependent to a more sustainable technology-based economy requires universities to balance research autonomy with commercially focused collaboration with industry.
We offer a set of practical recommendations on how New Zealand universities can best maintain their research autonomy while building productive relationships with industry. We introduce the concept of the entrepreneurial university (Clark, 1998) as a key strategy New Zealand universities can adopt to respond to external stakeholders without compromising their research autonomy. This concept allows universities to pursue an economic mission and, at the same time, maintain their core academic values, including research autonomy.