Innovation and commercialisation in higher education research: who benefits? (#change11)

[Images retrieved from and, 20 March 2012]

“Innovation”, “high performance” and “excellence” can be described as “weasel words” (see also the “dictionary” of weasel words by Don Watson) – words that are sucked so dry by overuse or their use in service of one or other ideology (e.g. present managerial and neoliberal market economical rhetoric), that they  lose their meaning and their usefulness. This loss of meaning does however not prevent us from using these words glibly and employing them to “play the game” –whether in drafting performance agreements or institutional policies.

Higher education and open distance learning (ODL) institutions are not immune (alas) to the lure of using weasel words. It is amazing how higher education institutions can actually be seduced into uncritically participating in the dominant discourses and market-induced rhetoric of the day. So I find myself currently employed in an ODL institution committed to becoming a “high performance” institution and driving an agenda of “innovation and excellence in research”.

Let me immediately add two disclaimers:

  1. I embrace a work ethic that is often unethical – so “high performance” is not something I shy away from – on the contrary. Hopefully my work record also shows enough evidence of ways in which I tried to change institutional practices for the better and for the benefit of our students. Outsiders may actually describe me as an “innovative” and an “excellent” worker. My concern is, and this is what this blog is about, that we use words like “high performance”, “innovation” and “excellence” often slickly and in service of ideologies that we don’t interrogate and deconstruct.
  2. I also do not see the world in “black” and “white”. I realise that in some of the “hard” sciences, binaries work. But for me as a social scientist embracing my own identity as a plural, layered and dynamic construct, the world cannot (and should not) be described in “pure” binary terms. So although I criticise the way we use these “weasel words”, there are enough examples of “innovation” and “high performance” that benefit society in more than just economic terms.

During a recent Research and Innovation week at my home institution, the issue of “innovation” in research came under the loop. The organisers must be complimented for putting the issue on the agenda and creating a space where we could question the notion.

Two speakers at the event held the view that “true” innovation is more than “just” (sic) “invention”. In their way of seeing the world (mostly in monetary terms?), something can only be described as innovative when it is an invention that has been commercialised. This results in a situation where non-commercialised or inventions outside the commercial domain cannot be described as “true” innovations.

Luckily there was also a contesting voice – and I would like to mention him by name – a scholar by the name of Peter Vale from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. It is Peter who introduced me to Watson’s notion of “weasel words”. Peter questioned and critiqued our seeming obsession not only with “weasel words” but also with subscribing to  neoliberal market ideologies which  dominate higher education discourses. With regard to innovation he not only questioned the notion that innovation is only innovation when it is commercialised, but he also tabled the belief that we should ask ourselves a more important question namely – “who benefits?” from innovation.

If I understood Peter correctly, it would mean that something could be hailed as innovative and yet destroy natural habitats or impoverish current and future generations of people who will be adversely affected by the so-called and celebrated “innovation”. And there are ample evidence of this in news bulletins.

As Peter spoke I was reminded of the work by Zygmunt Bauman in which he moots the idea that the holocaust would not have been possible if it was not for modernity  – with the the advances in technology and the dominant views of seeing the world and nations during that era. Even before Peter spoke and deconstructed the lure of innovation, I scribbled a note stating that Hitler saw his “final solution” as innovative… And I have no doubt that many in Hitler’s Nazi party benefitted financially from this “innovation”. But the Holocaust is not remembered today (except in the dreams of some mad dictators) for its innovation, but we think of the Holocaust with disgust and immeasurable sadness.

While the market and the military industry beats the drum, we may dance along and sing our praises to innovation, high performance, and excellence – without thinking and questioning the beat, or the direction or the ask “who benefits?”

In a wonderful article, Robert A Rhoads (2011) “The U.S research university as a global model: some fundamental problems to consider” critiques not only the fact that the U S research universities should be a model to duplicate, but he also reveals how much of this research is sponsored and used by corporations and the military in a situation where the market has become “the ultimate source of social justice” (2011:8). Research in service of neoliberal market and military ideologies furthermore results in universities having less time and resources to “pursue more complex social, cultural, and philosophical questions” (2011:14).

In closing: I added in my disclaimer that we should stop seeing the world in binary terms. Most certainly there is a place for innovation in higher education research to be sold to the higher bidder albeit with certain provisions in place such as the commitment to erasing social and economic inequalities and injustices. But when the dominant discourses of the day celebrate and perpetuate uncritical use of weasel words such as “innovation” and “high performance”, we need critical scholars (such as Peter Vale) to rise to the occasion and question these dominant meta-narratives.  I would go as far as to say that in the light of the hegemony of neoliberal market ideologies and North Atlantic canons of “democracy”, “civilisation” and “development” – the need for critical scholarship has never been greater.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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3 Responses to Innovation and commercialisation in higher education research: who benefits? (#change11)

  1. Hentie Wilson says:

    Thanks for being critical and making us think.

  2. Pingback: Innovation and commercialisation in higher education research: who benefits? (#change11) | Digital Delights |

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