Many universities need to change their attitudes and the way they operate if they are to play an effective part in helping their cities and regions promote human capital development and become more innovative and globally competitive. In particular they should widen their access to include sections of the population currently under-represented in higher education, and redefine their concept of 'innovation'.
These are among findings identified by Jaana Puukka, analyst and project leader of the OECD's work on higher education in regional and city development, in the light of research by the organisation's Programme on Institutional Management of Higher Education (IMHE).
"The key message is that countries are looking to find ways to make higher education more accountable, responsible, engaged, and the way to do this in practice is at the grassroots level, in cities and regions," Puukka told University World News. "Quite often it will take a big change of attitude."
Since 2005 IMHE has carried out reviews in 29 regions in 19 countries - from Chile to Australia, via Mexico and the US, Europe, Malaysia and Korea. The project is run in collaboration with OECD directorates and partners including the World Bank, Unesco, the Inter-American Development Bank and the US' National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
The second phase of the comparative review culminated last week in the conference Higher Education in Cities and Regions - For stronger, cleaner and fairer regions in the historic Spanish city of Seville in Andalusia, one of the regions surveyed.
Puukka stressed the urgency for higher education institutions to widen access to their studies, and open up to groups that are currently under-represented such as migrants and older people. "Countries can't afford to lose talent or exclude part of their population from education. This is a country-level issue, but lessons have to be taken down to grassroots level, to regions and cities."
To widen access to higher education it was important to start early. "Many children and young people don't get into education; we know that to ensure individuals' progress you have to have long-term collaboration with schools."
One example of such 'good practice' is Australia's Victoria University Access and Success programme. This has established collaborative teaching and research partnerships with Melbourne schools which have many pupils from non-English-speaking backgrounds, to improve their access to, and successful participation in, post-compulsory education.
Another is the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a long-term multi-stakeholder public-private project initiated by and based at the University of Texas that works to improve educational attainment and retention from the first year of children's primary education.
Institutions also needed to develop lifelong learning, said Puukka. "A third of people in OECD countries have low skills. People are living longer, we have ageing populations - there are not many young people, except for migrants. We are focusing too narrowly, only on people with university credentials."
Not enough universities were concerned with what happened to their graduates after their studies. "In very few places can we see there is robust knowledge about the graduate labour market. Some universities are following up their students' progress - but in more cases they are not and universities see their responsibility as 'you get them in, you get them out'. In some cases, 50% drop out," said Puukka.
"You need to think about your overall strategy - what are the needs? Employability, equipping graduates with relevant skills, for universities to work in collaboration with industry - which includes the public sector, businesses, healthcare and so on," she said.
Institutions should also expand their concept of innovation. "There is emphasis on technology transfer and intellectual property; but only a few technology transfer offices in universities are profitable. They are extremely expensive undertakings if each university builds its own rather than cooperating; they lose money."
Much more important for the region's economy was university collaboration with industry "which takes different forms - students, interns, collaborative research, consultancies".
If regions looked at their tangible assets and their needs, and linked up with high quality research, the results might be much better, said Puukka.
She cited as an example of good practice Catalonia's University of Rovira i Virgili, which has established a long-term collaboration with the chemical industry in Tarragona, incorporating research and human capital development programmes relevant to the industry's needs.
University faculty spend time working in local firms during their leave and have continuing relationships with the firms; there are strong alumni connections and students participate in internships and programmes within firms. Advanced technical vocational skills and higher degree-based skills, such as in engineering, are designed in cooperation with local industry representatives. Strong support of university leadership is vital to success of the initiative.
Nor was innovation "only ICT and biotechnology", but it could "happen in various fields, such as creative and cultural areas", said Pukka.
For example, "Andalusia has huge assets in the creative economy - a marvellous culture known throughout the world, history and architecture. But the regional government wants to change its image to one of high technology.
"Are study programmes aligned with regional needs and opportunities? - Andalusian universities do not offer courses in tourism."
Sessions at the Seville conference focused on such topics as strengthening regions through university-industry-regional clusters, mobilising international higher education networks for regional and local development, Andalusia's innovative agri-food industry and its renewable energy technologies, and the need for strong links between universities and vocational education institutions.
But one of the work groups, bluntly titled 'Moving the unmovable', and the final plenary session also addressed the need, and suggested ways, for higher education institutions to transform themselves to meet both global and local challenges - in other words, to change their attitudes.
"Attitudes can change with incentives. Now there are 'negative' incentives - for example, the number of publications is seen as the only way to progress; institutions are seen through narrow rankings," said Puukka. "But leadership can make a difference.
"In many cases universities say 'we would do this but legislation prevents us doing it'. This is true in some countries, there is less flexibility, but we can identify universities that are moving.
"The first movers never wait for the law to be changed - they are instrumental in getting the law changed."
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