Universities as centres for regional innovation

European universities are instrumental in regional knowledge triangles, facilitating linkages between innovation, research, and teaching and learning, said international higher education expert Jaana Puukka, calling on universities to act as centres for regional innovation and economic development.

She was a keynote speaker at the South African Technology Network’s 9th Annual International SATN Conference held in Cape Town from 12-14 October, under the theme “Partnerships for Innovation and Development – Making it happen. Making it matter”.

Puukka, of France-based Innovation Engage and an expert consultant for the European Commission and the World Bank, said Europe had adopted a policy targeted on quality, relevance, impact and responsiveness to modernise higher education and drive innovation and entrepreneurship.

Developments and challenges

The European Commission asked countries and regions to develop specialised smart strategies in order to be eligible for huge funding from government for regional development. The initiative encourages local partnerships between industry role players and universities.

“Criticism has been that role players have not been listening to society,” Puukka said, adding that universities too did not fully engage civil society members as co-creators of knowledge.

The European Association of Institutions in Higher Education was given the mandate to promote a regional agenda. However, some traditionally oriented institutions still need to be integrated into the broader higher education system.

The World Bank group is currently implementing six pilot projects to track the economic impact of higher education.

Puukka said the impending exit of the British from the European Union was being felt across higher education. Also, European universities have had their core functions affected by the excitement of rankings, evaluations and accreditations.

Another recent development has been the creation of separate accreditation for entrepreneurial and engaged universities.

Cities and Regions Review

The OECD Cities and Regions Review on universities attempted to assess development in industrialised countries against the rest of the world.

More than 35 reviews of universities worldwide have interrogated the broad regional roles of higher education institutions, drilling down into issues such as education and skills; social, cultural and environmental engagement; and research, development and innovation.

Most universities are experiencing an ongoing and steady decline in public funding, meaning that they are no longer able to serve the traditional markets and focus areas of the past.

However, universities are also not meant to focus on research and innovation for industry partners only. The OECD reviews considered universities’ responsiveness to the needs of local industry and society, taking note of contextual elements such as environmental or social issues.

“Universities can lead by example. If they are environmentally friendly institutions themselves, they will impart these values in their teaching and learning,” said Puukka.

The capacity of higher education institutions to engage in partnerships with local governments to tackle critical issues was examined, and the study also looked at how partnerships were created, who was involved, and the local context.

Some examples

Puukka identified three entrepreneurial and innovative universities of different sizes and in dissimilar contexts, from Germany, Mexico and Spain.

The institutions cooperate closely with industry to respond to various imperatives in a positive manner, and produce students who have low dropout rates, high employability and good prospects for top positions.

Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University was founded in 2009, uses cooperative education and describes itself as the first university in Germany to integrate academy studies with workplace training. The multi-campus institution deploys modern business practices such as key account managers to engage with industry on a regular basis.

Staff members of Mondragon University in Spain – a non-profit, cooperative university – have a financial stake in the institution, which helps to ensure that innovation and entrepreneurship are embedded in the university’s DNA.

ITSON – the Sonora Institute of Technology – in Mexico, next to the United States border, implemented a strategic plan for the region with local governments, and has developed innovation eco-systems – with global potential – based on local assets.

The universities differ greatly and grapple with very different challenges depending on their context and higher education policy at national level.

Challenges include poor guidance, as system coherence and coordination within universities is often weak.

There can be a disconnect between knowledge transfer and regional growth. In some universities focus was on supply-driven education instead of responding to the actual needs of the context or the industry that they serve.

Puukka said universities that implement a place-based knowledge exchange model, working with small and medium enterprises and corporates, have been successful and have helped to sustainably transform societies in which they operate.

Some key lessons

She said key lessons for universities to move forward included fostering long-term partnerships while aiming to understand partners’ needs, and entrenching innovation, entrepreneurship and regional development in the core functions of the university.

There was a need to engage with the community and people, and to work towards long-term and continuous university transformation.

Nationally, universities have to be supported by autonomy and accountability, strong leadership, governance and management, incentives to the university and individuals, and continuous evaluation for improvement.

Universities in turn have to commit to develop and support the region where they are located, map their linkages, analyse their potential versus actual performance, and develop a continuous feedback system – evaluate, benchmark and improve.