Innovation is increasingly important for universities – as it is for society. Universities are one of the strands of the so-called ‘triple helix’, providing impactful research to sustain competitiveness and develop their mission of service to society. While the basic assumption is right – universities are key to innovation – it is central to have framework conditions that are fit to support innovation.
At the European University Association (EUA), we have witnessed notable change over the last decade, as universities have been working more intensely with their regional partners to reshape innovation, often as a reaction to the global economic crisis.
The common narrative is one of moving away from a linear model of innovation in which knowledge is created and passed on progressively until an application reaches the market (think ‘tech transfer’ or ‘technology readiness levels’).
Instead, universities become places of co-creation, where knowledge moves around and develops between researchers, students and partners with different applications in various fields. It is a model in which the free flow of ideas in the ecosystem of actors plays an important role, based on openness, space for cooperation and curiosity.
Meanwhile, the one-way process from research to market through intellectual property is less prominent.
This is a successful model, notably when it comes to overcoming crises. A recent EUA study revealed that in many regions, the 2008 economic crisis disrupted old models as the role of big companies diminished.
These regions re-invented themselves with universities creating spaces for new kinds of innovation, such as building a student start-up scene and embracing open innovation with the sharing of knowledge as a central pillar.
The importance of institutional autonomy
Institutional autonomy is a crucial pre-condition enabling universities to profile themselves and strengthen their innovation mission by engaging in collaborations with external partners and making the necessary reforms in learning and teaching.
Universities need the freedom to look beyond the boundaries of the traditional three missions of research, education and service to society to really integrate the latter into the first two, while connecting research and teaching by developing problem-based learning.
To do this, universities need to be agile. They need sufficient academic autonomy to reform study programmes; they need appropriate staffing autonomy to define and implement their hiring policies; they need financial autonomy to invest according to their strategies and manage and develop their buildings to provide adequate learning and research spaces; and they need organisational autonomy to design balanced and efficient governance models.
Autonomy understood in this way becomes a tool to enable universities to build bridges and engage with external partners of the innovation ecosystem for the benefit of society. Efficient and adequate governance structures have proven to be essential when cooperating with external partners, as the EUA USTREAM project has shown.
Sufficient and sustainable core funding
Financing is another decisive factor for universities’ innovation capacity. Real disruptive innovation comes from curiosity-driven research, which often takes considerable time and cannot be confined in short-term market logics.
Therefore, sufficient and sustainable public funding is very much needed in order to ensure a space for creativity where researchers are led by curiosity to explore the frontiers of knowledge.
Where funding models push too forcefully for immediate application, this space could become too small, with the result that the real innovative ideas do not have the room to thrive.
Interestingly, this is well understood by big companies that enter into decade-long strategic cooperation with universities to look for the next big idea rather than short-term contractual research projects with a focus on direct market uptake.
Indicators used in performance-based funding models, such as the number of research contracts, patents, publications or similar indicators often used as proxies for the innovation capacity of universities, fail to capture the new model of open innovation. We know from other EUA studies (in particular the DEFINE project) that using these incentives is, by itself, often not efficient.
While performance-based funding can work as a carrot, providing an extra bonus, distributing a major part of the core funding for universities via such a model (moreover one based on yesterday’s success factors) is rarely helpful.
Furthermore, failing to acknowledge the rigidity of universities’ cost structures creates constraints rather than opportunities for innovation. Similarly, the focus on purely academic publishing and the number of citations, still present in traditional research assessment, fails to recognise the societal impact of research.
The EUA study on innovation ecosystems confirms that enabling frameworks and appropriate and sufficient funding are important factors for a university’s innovation capacity and shows how universities in different contexts can make their contribution to innovation and regional development – not least through an innovation culture.
Thomas Estermann is European University Association (EUA) director of governance, funding and public policy development, and Thomas Jørgensen is EUA senior policy coordinator. These topics will be discussed at the 2019 EUA Annual Conference on ‘Driving innovation in Europe’s universities’, hosted by Sorbonne University in Paris. More than 500 university leaders, policy-makers and other stakeholders are taking part in this important debate.
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