Under pressure to rethink universities’ third mission

The role of the university is not limited to teaching and research but includes a third mission: to engage with society. To address growing societal and economic challenges, universities everywhere face a growing demand to link their research and teaching knowledge to this third societal mission.

Saudi universities must now play their part in achieving the Saudi Vision 2030, an ambitious development programme for the Kingdom. This vision clearly states that Saudi Arabia will move beyond its oil-based economy to become a thriving, knowledge-based economy. Saudi academics are now debating how to effectively integrate these goals into their current institutional frameworks.

Saudi universities were not set up with this third mission in mind because most were only established recently and the rapid expansion of higher education meant they did not have the chance to direct their attention towards societal issues. However, the Ministry of Education recently published a white paper on its website placing Saudi universities into three categories: teaching, applied and research universities.

Measuring success

While it is possible to measure teaching and research, it is very difficult to measure ‘the third mission’. However, Saudi Arabia could benefit from other countries’ experience in this respect. For example, the United Kingdom has recently published its ‘Knowledge Exchange Framework’ with the aim of increasing efficiency and effectiveness in the use of public funding for knowledge exchange.

With its new classification system and taking into account best practice in the field, Saudi universities could develop more information and metrics that describe and compare institutional-level performance in knowledge transfer and community service.

The third mission seems to rely on an ability to measure societal interaction and create a number of indicators and qualitative assessments. However, there are emerging cases of innovation-based products coming out of Saudi universities.

For example, the Dhahran Techno Valley Company (DTVC) – a wholly owned subsidiary of the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals – has been created to promote a knowledge-based culture in the eastern province. Its closeness to some of the world’s biggest companies such as Aramco and SABIC has been the key driver for the transformation of research into practical applications.

DTVC has facilitated the creation and launch of small and medium-sized enterprises in energy and related industries. In this respect, DTVC has been a pioneering and leading regional centre for knowledge transformation and commercialisation.

This model has been replicated in a number of Saudi universities such as in Makkah Techno Valley and Riyadh Techno Valley where knowledge emanating from research is being commercialised and operationalised.

The ‘third mission’ is not a catchy phrase, but it is of increasing importance in establishing the relationship between universities and business in its various forms. Saudi universities are required, more than in the past, to make this mission highly visible and align it with their goal of scientific advancement.

To be part of the 2030 vision and to promote a knowledge-based economy requires a greater emphasis on university-industry links and research-related products. It is quite a challenge for newly established universities, yet the desire to reshape this relationship comes from government and is at the heart of its vision of creating and sustaining a knowledge-based economy.

Ruwayshid Alruwaili is head of the English and linguistic department at Northern Borders University, Saudi Arabia.