The battle for knowledge

professorchrishillierThe well-known opinion leader and US journalist, Chris Hedges once said: “We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.”

It is a powerful statement and cleverly constructed. As an employee of the University of the West Indies dedicated to developing innovation and promoting knowledge transfer, the claim that “universities destroy knowledge” is disturbing. At first, it seems surely completely counter-intuitive but on closer inspection there actually is a large component of truth in this statement if viewed in the particular context of technology transfer.

Strictly speaking, “knowledge” is the collective noun for the understanding of information to the extent that the bearer becomes cognisant and aware of the existence of something more. A value given to the information that elevates it to the higher state of “knowledge”.

All universities would take umbrage at the claim that their existence did not promote and, indeed, create new knowledge. To state the opposite is tantamount to libel — surely?

However, let’s look a little closer. Many years ago now, in 2005 in fact, SciDev.Net, an organisation that originally derived from the renowned journal Nature, with help from the Wellcome Trust and the UK Government, published a “policy brief” titled The Role of Universities in Knowledge Production.

The author, Judith Sutz, argued that although Universities had a clear role in the creation of knowledge, there was an urgent need for many of these Institutions to look outside of themselves — to society, industry and government — in order to create the elevator that could raise the information they create to the level of knowledge — with value-added.

Importantly, with regards to the developing world, the author argues that without a focus on the particular needs of any Region, the information coming out of Universities “become meaningless and of little value”.

Fast forward to the present, and I find that, as a member of the Association of University Technology Managers, many universities around the globe still continue to struggle with this fundamental approach to information and its application as useful knowledge.

As Judith Sutz asked eight years ago, when will these universities take responsibility for driving their own transformation and finally grasp the challenges that come with this ambition.

It seems clear that each Institution should, at the very least, be able to create its own engine to generate information-rich knowledge, guided by its own specific history and traditions, and very much focused on the specific needs of their own various constituencies.

Therefore, it is reassuring to observe that the University of the West Indies has, in its recent strategic plan, given serious consideration, and commitment, at the highest level, to promote innovation and knowledge transfer combining the traditional pursuit of knowledge alongside a closer engagement with it own societies.

However, the global situation is worrying. If some futurists are to be believed we may soon witness the slow extinction of up to half of the universities and Institutions of higher learning that currently exist. The rise of “virtual online campuses”, the availability of free information through the Internet, and the fragmentation of traditional funding systems will undoubtedly very soon change the knowledge-creation landscape forever.

Therefore, UWI has gone further than simply recognising the challenge, it has asked all of its campuses and faculty to rise to the urgency of the situation and to develop strategies to counter a world-wide paradigm shift in education and over the next fewyears we can expect to see the fruits of those strategies.

In fact, judging by the current issue of CHILL (CHILL News, 14: May 2013), the magazine that presents the activities of UWI’s Cave Hill Campus in Barbados, we are already beginning to see the start of real progress. In an issue crammed with innovation and successful stories of entrepreneurship, the Principal of Cave Hill, Sir Hilary Beckles confirms that UWI is not content to be passive, but rather “…we have opted to have our university evolve into a centre of innovation and believe that we are well on our way”.

Chris Hedges’ suggestion that “universities destroy knowledge” still doesn’t quite make sense to me but I think I understand what he is trying to say. The crux of a university’s role is to be useful. If it doesn’t focus its resources on the utility of the knowledge it creates, then the opportunity is wasted, time passes, society loses interest, and ultimately the seat of knowledge, along with its population will slowly perish.

It is a testament to the foresight and vision of our region’s primary educational institution that there is now a clear and deliberate focus on bold and ambitious strategic decisions, that ultimately, should prove Chris Hedges wrong and will not allow knowledge in the Caribbean, and its legacy, to be destroyed.

* Professor Chris Hillier is Technology Transfer and Innovation Coordinator in the Office of the Principal, Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies.

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