What better setting for the OECD conference Higher Education in Cities and Regions - For stronger, cleaner and fairer regions, than Seville, city capital of Andalusia in Spain. A melting pot of cultures and an ancient learning centre, the region is today suffering the consequences of the economic crisis. In Andalusia it is estimated that 28% of the workforce and 52% of the youth population are currently unemployed.
As Aart de Geus, the Deputy Secretary General of the OECD, commented in his opening address, the regional government of Andalusia, like many other governments in OECD countries and beyond, understands that higher education institutions need to be mobilised to combat this situation and to provide better support for economic recovery and job creation.
With more than 250 participants from around 40 countries, the conference not only provided a forum for participants to share ideas and experience, but also presented the main findings and policy lessons from the second round of OECD Reviews of Higher Education in Regional and City Development.
The conference brought together policy-makers and practitioners; public and private bodies concerned with regional development; leaders and managers of higher education institutions; and those responsible for knowledge transfer, regional development and community liaison at higher education institutions.
Subtitled "For stronger, cleaner and fairer regions", it was structured around three core ideas: widening access to tertiary education, fostering a model of innovation that generates employment and enterprises, and mobilising higher education institutions to support their regions and cities by being both globally competitive and regionally engaged.
University is still for elites
Given the extensive social and individual benefits that result from higher education, fairer access and greater inclusion are essential if the full potential of all young people is to be realised. In spite of rapid enrollment growth worldwide, tertiary education remains largely elitist, with strong disparities in access and success persisting in high, middle and low income countries.
A talented but low-income student who is denied entry into tertiary education represents a loss of human capital for society. The lack of opportunity in tertiary education for people from minority groups and from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds is leading to under- or undeveloped human resources. And that opportunity can be provided in later life to those people who did not have it when young.
Jamil Salmi, the World Bank's tertiary education coordinator, highlighted the negative economic consequences of limited access to higher education in his keynote speech. Case studies from the OECD reviews presented at the conference highlighted that the new equity challenge were the difficulties faced by children of immigrants in accessing post-secondary education and completing their studies.
Although tertiary education institutions are becoming more aware of the low level of representation of these groups, effective solutions to address this issue have yet to be designed and implemented in a systematic way.
Linda Rosenman, Deputy Vice-chancellor and Provost of Victoria University in Australia, presented the case of an institution engaged with widening access to tertiary education. The university serves a region that includes areas with low levels of educational attainment, a high percentage of non-English-speaking immigrants, high unemployment and significant population growth.
Responding to these demands by increasing access to and success in tertiary education is a huge challenge for an institution in a tertiary education policy and funding environment that uses research rankings as the indicator of excellence.
How to translate innovation into jobs?
In the 1990s, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics predicted that 2.8 million jobs would be created in leading-edge industries. The actual number was orders of magnitude lower - and is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Key high-tech industries, for example in bio-technology and bio-sciences - have produced few new jobs.
In the science-driven technology transfer model, where the goal is the development of intellectual property or a product that 'breaks through' and alters markets, knowledge is frequently captured for the profit of an individual enterprise and not shared among firms in an industry. How can we broaden the benefit to society of this model of innovation?
Susan Christopherson, from Cornell University, was critical of a technology transfer model which "creates some patents, makes a handful of universities rich but does not create a significant number of jobs and businesses". She argued that the basis for a new emergent job-friendly approach to innovation should be collaboration between higher education institutions and economic sectors.
Christopherson highlighted collaboration between the Milan Polytechnic University technology transfer office and regional industrial designers, and between the University Rovira i Virgili in Catalonia and the regional chemical industry, as examples of good practice.
However, there was no more apposite example in the conference of the collaborative approach to innovation than the one between the University of Jaen in Andalusia, and the local olive oil sector.
Andalusia accounts for 40% of world production of olive oil and 20% of the production of table olives. The olive sector in Andalusia, which produces 20% of the agricultural production of the region and in which around 250,000 households are engaged, is a source of revenue and employment and also provides an element of social and territorial cohesion.
The Rector of the University of Jaen, Manuel Parras, explained that innovation in the olive industry was a priority for his university. Instead of investing large sums of money in high-technology industries where the region does not have the capacity to compete in the global market, they combined tradition and innovation.
Value is added through the process of production, management of residuals and the commercialisation of olive oil. Tradition and innovation are approached not as opposites but as complementary to achieving the common goal: improving employment opportunities and the productive capacity of the land.
Globally competitive and regionally engaged
How can higher education institutions contribute to regional development if they are not globally competitive? And what is the interest of hosting world-class institutions if there is no benefit for the people of the region?
The false dilemma between global excellence and regional engagement is one of the topics that participants tried to overcome during this conference.
John Hearn, Chief Executive of the Worldwide Universities Network, defended a "think global, act local" approach to the challenges that higher education institutions and regions are facing today. The engagement of international universities in such global challenges as adapting to climate change and the provision of clean water, could accelerate the transfer of knowledge for economic, social, cultural and environmental development of their regions.
Complementing this analysis John Goddard from Newcastle University presented the inspiring idea of 'civic universities'. He argued that continuing public support for universities could well depend on how well institutions respond through their teaching and research to major societal challenges such as environmental sustainability and demographic change.
He suggested that national higher education policies, reduced state funding, marketisation and corporate governance had contributed to an increasing disconnect between universities and their 'place'.
However, he contended that the civic university provides opportunities for the society of which it forms part; engages as a whole - not piecemeal - with its surroundings; partners with other local universities and colleges and is managed in such a way that it participates fully in the region of which it forms part.
While the university operates on a global scale, it uses its location to form its identity and to provide opportunities for it to grow and help others.
Moving to the third round
A conference provides new insights but it cannot resolve specific problems and the issues discussed here will continue on the agendas of governments at different levels and higher education institutions worldwide.
The OECD's work on Higher Education in Regional and City Development will continue and during the conference half-a-dozen new regions and localities showed their interest in joining the third round of reviews.
If you want to join this venture, do not hesitate to contact us. You will not be the first to set sail from Seville!
* Richard Yelland is Head of the Education Management and Infrastructure Division in the OECD Directorate for Education. The Division is responsible for the work of the Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education and the Programme on Educational Building.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters