For universities of technology as for any university, knowledge generation, knowledge dissemination and education are of inherent value, while for firms the inherent value lies with safeguarding return on investment as this is vital to the existence of the firm including employment for their staff. These values as well as several deriving from these might lead to conflicts. The value conflicts are examined for these four individuals (two engineers and two architects) as they might emerge in university–industry collaboration. The conflicts are grouped into five types: (1) students working in exchange for practical training, (2) public funding of applied research used to produce private profit, (3) outside personal earnings of publicly funded researchers, (4) universities not being compensated for industrial use of research, and (5) unfair competition resulting from the involvement of a publicly funded partner.
Value Conflict 1: Students Working in Exchange for Practical Training
Universities of technology educate engineers and architects, i.e., professions with fairly clear-cut job profiles. In this respect, education in engineering and architecture more resemble education within the medical sciences, and are less like education in the humanities or sciencesFootnote 7: teaching does not only consist of a rather narrow academic focus on knowledge dissemination, that is, lecturing in a narrow sense, but also training. Just as future physicists in their academic training must learn not only about existing theories and knowledge in the field, but also about the “lab”-practice of how to do research, future engineers need to learn how to advance their field. As this is regularly done outside the academic realm and within companies, education at universities of technology often encompasses training on the job as well as pure knowledge dissemination through university lectures. Indeed, certain aspects of engineering practice can only be learned by taking part in that practice, e.g., internships with industry are necessary for a full engineering education. Students benefit immensely from being taught in the context of real problems. Hence there is significant overlap between the aims of universities of technology as regards this aspect of education, and the interests of firms in good, qualified (student) workers. In the case of student workers labor is also cheap, forming an additional incentive for industry to collaborate with universities. Despite these mutual interests differences in values might lead to problems, e.g., (1) while students carry out work for the firm might help the firm, it may not benefit the students’ education because it is not sufficiently related to it; (2) students have to work too many hours; or (3) they might not be adequately paid by the firm.
The architect working at RWTH Aachen University (RWTH A) explained that his students profit from his relationships with the private sector, because they get the opportunity to learn from real world problems. For example, the architect contributes to the land development plan of a city. While the majority of the work is done by a privately owned architect’s office, students attending seminars that relate to the work of RWTH A are not asked to do any direct chores related to it but learn about the whole process. According to RWTH A, the advantage of these kinds of seminars is that students learn not only about successfully finished projects, but are involved in the project process itself. (RWTH A 00:08:43-9 to 00:09:26-8). This is a good example of implementing a mutually beneficial arrangement (see Fig. 2): the university benefits because it can improve the training of its students. At the same time, the industry partner obtains knowledge that is current state-of-the-art in research as well as contact with good students who might be interested in future employment. Most of the time, this kind of collaboration between universities and industry is initiated by university researchers in order to improve student’s training.
While the actual case does not show any value conflicts, it has the potential for a severe conflict. If, contrary to the case at hand, industry does not see sufficient reason to get involved in teaching as the balance between various instrumental values is set differently, it becomes tempting to offer students work in exchange for their opportunity to learn from real cases. In this kind of situation, students might be exploited because the work that they do in exchange for obtaining experience in the private sector might be worth much more than it costs the private sector to train them. It would be the task of the university to assure a fair solution considering both the need for firms to receive some compensation for their contribution to teaching, and for the students not to be exploited as cheap labor. So far, finding such a fair solution is up to researchers who teach the students. It would help the researcher if the university would facilitate this by developing appropriate regulations available to the individual researcher.
Value Conflict 2: Public Money Spent on Applied Research to Make Private Profit
Unlike the sciences or humanities, engineering and architecture are committed to real world practice. In particular, engineers and architects apply their knowledge in order to design, build or maintain artifacts in the broadest sense, ranging from machines or other devices to structures or processes. Value conflicts of university–industry collaboration may lead to situations where the outcome of the development of prototypes is inherently uncertain. It might be that firms are reluctant to invest in this kind of prototype because it goes hand-in-hand with the risk that no market launch is possible. At the same time, the development of the prototype might be of instrumental value to universities because it may provide a first step to solving real-world problems. The obvious conflict here is that the firm makes money with the market launch of the product, while a lot of research money that went into the design of the prototype was done by university researchers and thus was financed by the general public. In specific contexts, such conflicts may be partly resolved by drawing a clear line between knowledge generation and prototype generation on the one hand, and large-scale production on the other hand. As the engineer working at RWTH Aachen puts it regarding the firms with which he collaborates:
Of course we stay in contact with them, but we … only cooperate in the development of the product up to [a] certain point where we as a university say we are not [a] manufacturing industry, we can only produce a limited number of the thing. We cannot give any guarantees and cannot give a CEFootnote 8 label … and then we are characterized by education. … then we need to say okay, guys, you can do this for a licensing fee or whatever, then this dissolves. … then they are just gone. And say, okay, it was a good time but you have nothing to offer us at this time. (RWTH E, 00:35:07-7, translation).
Whether or not such a clear cut line between prototype generation and large-scale production can be drawn can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. Here it is important to ask whether the university–industry collaboration contributes to general knowledge within the respective discipline as a whole, and not simply to creation of a prototype as the precursor to mass-production (cp. RWTH E, 00:32:51-9).
Value Conflict 1, emerging from the need to involve industry in the training of engineers-to-be, and Value Conflict 2 have obvious and significant overlap. Consider as a generic example, the conflicting interests that emerge from the knowledge dissemination and implementation associated with spinning off companies. The arising conflicts for the university are clearly expressed by the engineer working at Delft University of Technology:
We have a student …, he starts up a company. So a few companies have been started up here. So that’s important. I, myself, am too busy to make a link between what we are doing here, because what we are doing here is always small scale and prototyping for the big industry. So it is important, but there’s always a conflict between your scientific output and your personal interest in that company. Sometimes technicians have a feeling they are there to make the professor rich and not the university. So, it is important, but I’m not always so happy about the way it goes (TUD E 01:04:40-5).
Spin-offs are a widely desired output of universities of technology, although they do not often emerge in a direct way and might come with problems regarding value conflicts. While the architect working at Delft University of Technology has no direct spin-offs out of his group, he knows that many of his former students start their own businesses:
TUD A: Spin-offs in an indirect sense of course we have. There are offices: young graduates, they’ll start an office and do their profession. And they will not do it with us, but they do it[?] with the knowledge that we gave them. But this is not…
Interviewer: It’s not like they developed an idea here and they start an office with that…?
TUD A: No, not that I’m aware of (TUD A 00:54:02-6 to 00:54:09-8).
Though TUD A is not aware of actual problems, there is the potential for severe conflicts. Suppose the students use knowledge developed in the university in their start-up. Despite the university’s aim to spread knowledge, the question arises as to whether there is money to be made from that particular knowledge, should not the university have its share. Then industry could indirectly pay back the taxpayer who initially funded the university research that made the spin-off possible. As always, “the devil is in the details” and a discussion as to where lies the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior is beyond the scope of this paper. The following citation from the interview with an engineer at RWTH Aachen University illustrates this as it shows how much the intricate relationship between industrial and university partners changes over time. The relationships with a spin-off from Helmholtz Institute, a scientific-technical research center with 70% of its annual budget raised from public funds, is described by RWTH E:
And we collaborated with them for years, more than ten years, and then we could not collaborate with them anymore, because they were going too much into the production, and then they could not stay in close contact with a university institute anymore (RWTH E, 00:32:51-9, translation).
Value Conflict 3: Personal Earnings of Publicly-Funded Researchers
Value Conflict 3 identifies a problem that might occur in every university–industry collaboration when the university researcher is compensated for her efforts in solving industrial problems. While there are rules in place guiding researchers in this kind of situation (RWTH Aachen University 2013; Delft University of Technology 2019), it is always difficult to determine when a publicly funded researcher relies on either resources or time for which she is already compensated when working for the industrial partner. While RWTH E does not receive money from the company after the prototype is developed (see above), suppose he had been reimbursed for his efforts in helping to develop the prototype. Then, the question would arise whether he could privately accept the money. Because he is paid with public money while consulting on production of the prototype, it stands to reason that he should reinvest the money in research activities at the university.
At universities of technology it is fairly usual for senior university researchers to combine their position at the university with having their own company, e.g., TUD A, the architect who works at Delft University of Technology part-time and also has his own architectural office. TUD A did not recognize any conflicts in this context and yet there are strict regulations as to under which circumstances researchers may work in addition to their university position. Further, complications might emerge if the researcher’s students do work for the researcher’s company because this may improve the profit of the company. Hence, through their university affiliation researchers may experience personal financial benefit for their own companies.
Value Conflict 4: Universities are Not Compensated for Industrial Use of their Research
While the above discussion raises concerns about academics receiving personal income from work they do as public servants, at the same time, receiving no compensation from industry for commissioned work is also problematic. This point is illustrated by both architects. The one working at Delft University of Technology addressed the problem like this:
Interviewer: Would you say that you have a lot of customers/clients in the region of Delft?
TUD A: Well. Yes. We want to have these clients [laughing], but it’s hard to get them to pay (TUD A 00:04:14-2 to 00:04:23-9).
His counterpart at the RWTH Aachen University has similar experiences:
Interviewer: Could one summarize that in cases of collaborations with local councils they almost always approach you?
RWTH A: Well, it has to be formalized first. If there is a kind of assignment there has to be [a] call for proposals first. Usually, there have been professional contacts with these people in the past. If someone approaches me who does not know me, it often happens that in 80% to 90% we simply cannot do it. People sometimes have rather strange ideas about what one can quickly produce for them which does not work like that, if you tell them that you need money for the chairFootnote 9 and have to employ people, then they quickly say that they did not imagine it like that. There are relatively many blind requests that come to nothing. Everything else where I know what they do and they know under which conditions we contribute, is naturally much more stable (RWTH A 01:10:02-9, translation).
He points out that when cooperating with private offices he has to give 40% overhead costs to the university. This means that many of the small consultancy projects are not possible. Because he values the inspiration he receives from these projects, he continues to cultivate these relationships (RWTH A 01:10:02-9).
Value Conflict 5: Unfair Competition Resulting from Involvement of a Publicly Funded Partner
Not only for universities but also for companies collaboration might lead to value conflicts. This holds particularly for competitors of firms collaborating with universities of technology. The quotation from RWTH A above illustrates very clearly that collaborations with local councils do not work because of worries about unfair competition. While the university researcher already has his office and some staff are publicly funded as a result of his function as department chair at the university, privately funded competitors would have to bill the full costs of their working hours. At the same time, in order to advance knowledge of his field, RWTH A relied on these contacts outside the university. He was worried that his work would dry up without these collaborations and was looking for new forms of collaboration with local councils and private offices.