No Ivory Tower in Sight: Academic Engagement in Ireland and the UK

Prof. Brian Lucey

For many, the conventional perception of universities, as well as other higher education providers, is that they are like ‘ivory towers’. The term is defined as “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world” in an online dictionary. More specifically, academics are generally considered to be less engaged with the external organisations.

Nevertheless, in a paper which is forthcoming in Science and Public Policy, Dr. Qiantao Zhang together with Dr. Charles Larkin and Prof. Brian Lucey at Trinity Business School, have found clear evidence that there is ‘no ivory tower in sight’, at least not in Ireland or the UK (term borrowed from Prof. Lucey).

This paper, titled ‘Universities, knowledge exchange, and policy: A comparative study of Ireland and the United Kingdom’, aims to provide one of the first cross-country empirical analyses of the intensity and diversity of knowledge exchange activities by academics.

Focusing on the wide perspective of knowledge exchange, the results are based on two large scale surveys with academics in the UK and Ireland and compare them in terms of: modes of interactions, types of partners, motivations and impacts of interactions, constraints on interactions and mission of higher education perceived by academics.

It is found that academics in the two countries are both involved in a wide range of activities, with intellectual property activities being the least frequently engaged type of interaction. However, academics working at Irish and UK universities show distinct patterns of interactions with private sector companies and public sector organisations.

An important lesson from our analysis is that, if any knowledge exchange policy instrument is to be really effective, the specific context of the higher education sector as well as its external stakeholders should be deeply understood, as there simply is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

In particular, there are considerable differences between Ireland and the UK in academic engagement in knowledge exchange activities. It raises a call for caution about one country seeking to imitate, emulate, or copy policies from another without specifying similarities and differences between each other and discussing their implications. This concern is of great relevance to the Irish higher education sector, which seems to have a tradition of looking at its UK counterpart for policies and practices.

The table below shows the percentage of respondents who had engaged in this activity over the three-year period up to 2014/15.


Activity Ireland UK
People based activities    
Attending conferences 77.0 80.8
Participating in networks 51.1 63.0
Giving invited lectures 49.9 55.4
Student placements 42.4 31.1
Curriculum development 41.5 21.8
Sitting on advisory boards 32.6 32.7
Employee training 28.8 27.2
Enterprise education 11.0 7.0
Standard setting forums 8.5 24.9
Problem solving activities    
Informal advice 58.1 47.4
Joint research 45.6 44.5
Joint publications 45.2 48.1
Research consortia 29.1 29.0
Hosting personnel 28.8 29.3
Consultancy services 25.5 31.5
Contract research 22.2 26.8
Prototyping and testing 13.7 9.0
Setting of physical facilities 13.7 9.7
External secondment 5.7 10.0
Community based activities    
Lectures for the community 35.4 41.4
School projects 24.1 28.6
Public exhibitions 22.2 13.4
Community based sports 8.0 3.0
Commercialisation activities    
Patenting 8.4 5.9
Formed/run consultancy 7.7 7.4
Licensed research 5.5 3.4
Spun-out company 3.3 2.8


Link to original blog post