Universities want transparency in links with industry

German university heads have welcomed proposals by the Stifterverband – a network of foundations, businesses and individuals supporting the country’s higher education and research – for improved transparency in collaborations between universities and industry.

The Stifterverband, or Donors’ Association for the Promotion of Sciences and the Humanities, is supported by around 3,000 individual donors, endowments and companies, including giants like Deutsche Bank or Daimler as well as medium-sized enterprises. It runs various programmes to boost developments in higher education and research.

The recommendations, issued in mid-April, stress the “responsibility of universities, as autonomous institutions, to regularly and appropriately inform the public about their collaborative projects with industry”.

The Stifterverband also notes that given their significance for higher education, long-term strategic partnerships need to be made particularly visible in terms of their volume, focus and targets.

Universities ought to develop guidelines and procedures regulating their responsibility to inform the public and should issue reports at least once a year.

The Stifterverband notes, however, that universities should closely coordinate their information activities with companies in the context of contract research.

Since research and development plays an important role in maintaining competitiveness, institutions and companies should be clear about what has to be handled as a business or trade secret. And while companies generally recognise the universities’ interest in publicising results, this must not infringe on intellectual property applications.

Also, undergraduate or doctoral theses written in the context of collaborative projects are to be published, but with due consideration to sensitive business information.

Universities are called on to maintain a sufficient level of transparency in what they charge for their services in contract research. They are to disclose relevant financial links to private donors that may exist regarding the publication of studies and expert reports. And they are to compile their own guidelines on how they handle donations and sponsoring income and disclose information on this area, with voluntary statements on private and small donations.

The Stifterverband generally recommends that universities professionalise their structures and processes regarding the management of collaborative activities with industry and establish central business relationship and transparency managers. Accordingly, businesses ought to develop and focus expertise relevant for collaborating with higher education at company level.

While the Stifterverband would like to see state governments leave responsibility for handling information on collaborative projects with industry up to the institutions themselves, it would welcome standards emerging from practice that could be applied in all German states.

Recommendations welcomed

Horst Hippler, president of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, which represents university heads in Germany, welcomes the recommendations and refers to them as a “useful contribution to further debate in higher education, industry and politics”.

Hippler says that it would make sense to have general principles in place as a framework for the wide range of collaborative activities among institutions and businesses, and also to establish such principles across Germany. And he agrees that special organisational units at institutions could be helpful in improving the management of collaborative activities.

Hippler supports the notion of regularly giving account of financial links with private donors and their role in publishing contents in the context of publications and expert reports. However, he notes that it is essential for universities that academic rules and regulations always be given priority regarding bachelor, masters and doctoral theses.

“Even if such papers are prepared within the companies themselves, university supervisors and examiners have to approve in advance the topic, the way it is handled and possible regulations governing secrecy,” Hippler stresses. “And these agreements are then also binding for the companies involved.”

According to Hippler, universities have already developed a wide range of tools such as cooperation agreements that could act as a basis to develop further activities. And he notes that important as the issue of transparency may be, a number of other items such as the remuneration for services provided by universities in contract research still have to be settled satisfactorily.

Changes in the models that collaborative activities are based on would also have implications for reporting and transparency.

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