The New Approach to University Planning: Fun with Sharks and Dragons

Dragons’ Den (in the UK) or Shark tank (in the US) is the programme where budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to wealthy investors in the hope of securing investment for their business. The concept is a really popular one and universities up and down the UK regularly run Dragons’ Den sessions to encourage student entrepreneurship

Some universities have gone even further though including for example this research Dragons’ Den at the University of Stirling from 2016/17
The University is establishing a number of inter/multi-disciplinary research themes that focus on the university’s research strengths and map to large scale funding opportunities such as the RCUK Global Challenges/H2020/UN Global Goals.
Having submitted to the dragons a plan that would establish an ambitious research area to tackle some of the big societal challenges or their idea for an inter/multi-disciplinary research theme that plays to the University of Stirling’s unique strengths selected teams have been invited to pitch their ideas to the dragons.
And this Dragons’ Den at Oxford was seeking to promote entrepreneurship in the Humanities:
Oxford University has announced its own pitching competition to find the most innovative and entrepreneurial ideas from staff and students in the faculties of the Humanities Division.
Unfortunately, candidates for the Humanities Innovation Challenge will not be offered £200,000 by Peter Jones or Deborah Meaden.
But the winner will receive £1,000 to launch the idea and £5,000 of in-kind support to help it to grow.
Then there was this New Business Ideas and Service Improvement Dragons’ Den at Warwick back in 2015 where staff had
the opportunity to pitch your idea for either a new on-campus business venture or a service improvement initiative, with the potential to receive management support, business mentoring and resources from the University to turn your idea into a reality.
All very positive you might think. Whilst the model and ‘stars’ of Dragons’ Den are not to everyone’s taste and it does present a rather particular model of contemporary capitalism, nevertheless the opportunity to engage in both a shared development activity and allocate additional investment in a university context is perhaps not a wholly dreadful scenario. And many do regard it all as a rather fun and novel (or at least not yet a totally cliched) means of sifting new ideas.
But things don’t always go quite so well as this report in the Chronicle on a recent session at the University of Baltimore demonstrates. It was meant to be a meeting about evaluating course offerings but when the deans arrived they discovered that part of the process would be based on the Shark Tank (the US equivalent of Dragons’ Den) model.
Deans and associate deans were instructed to take on the role of “CEO of your school,” and to assume they would be given a hypothetical $1 million to invest in their college’s academic program. They would give committee members a summary of their analysis of programs and how they would distribute “investment funds,” according to the email about the meeting, which was obtained byThe Chronicle.
“The allocation should reflect where you believe your school will receive the greatest return on investment based on your analysis and presentation of achievable program outcomes (cost savings and/or enrollment and revenue growth),” read the memo.
The committee, comprising four top administrators plus the deans and associate deans who were not in the hot seat, would become the “Investment Committee” and ask presenters questions or provide more information, according to the memo.
And just like inShark Tank, there would be clear losers. “Remember that some programs should receive zero investment dollars because they have been targeted for divestment,” read the memo.
 Perhaps unsurprisingly all of this shark-related discussion, combined with the talk of zero investment for some courses, prompted significant concern among some faculty of significant cuts.
It sounds like the exercise was cut short and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about the benefits of the Shark Tank/Dragons’ Den approach for resource allocation and investment prioritisation. Perhaps the model has some merits for smaller investments in novel projects or innovations but it does seem a strange way to undertake a serious evaluation of academic priorities in a faculty or university.
I’m out.

One response to “The New Approach to University Planning: Fun with Sharks and Dragons

Leave a Reply