University-Business Collaboration

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Close cooperation between Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) industry, businesses, or other non-academic partners. These non-academic organisations are not seen as clients, ultimately benefiting from the collaboration outcomes, but as equal partners in the entire research and development process (incl. definition of concepts, co-creation of methods) and as process facilitators bridging to create a bigger impact. 


The following text was extracted from the Final Report on the Impact of the University Business Cooperation issued by the European Commission in 2014. Authors: Dr. Adrian Healy, Dr. Markus Perkmann, Prof. John Goddard and Louise Kempton. Catalogue Number: NC-02-14-337-EN-N. Project Number: 2014.3253.

Both the business sector and higher education institutions make an important contribution to sustainable economic growth, employment and prosperity in the EU. They do so directly as employers and producers of goods and services, and through their role in promoting innovation and future capacity for growth, such as by developing a more skilled and knowledgeable workforce. Promoting and developing cooperation between higher education and business is a core element of the EU’s Agenda for Modernising Higher Education, and the potential to enhance this contribution further, through increased levels of collaboration, is now firmly recognized within EU policy circles and in Member States, most recently with the publication of Europe 2020 and the related Flagship Initiatives.

This potential has been most explicitly developed in the area of research and innovation. There are now numerous examples of initiatives seeking to encourage university- business collaboration in this area, with an associated consideration of what works, and what does not. In contrast, the promotion of business-university collaboration in the field of education has been relatively underplayed. This is unfortunate as it is through people, as students, graduates and employees, that knowledge exchange can often most effectively be embedded in both universities and businesses, relevant skills developed and the conditions for future innovation and economic growth laid.

Science-to-Business Marketing Research Centre identified eight types of university-business cooperation (Science-to-Business Marketing Research Centre 2011):

  1. Collaboration in R&D (joint R&D activities, contract research, R&D consulting, cooperation in innovation, joint publication with firm scientists/researchers, joint supervision of theses, students’ projects);
  2. Mobility of academics;
  3. Mobility of students;
  4. Commercialization of R&D results (thorough spin-offs, patenting, licenses etc.);
  5. Curriculum development and delivery (the process of collaboratively creating a learning environment with members of the business community);
  6. Lifelong learning;
  7. Entrepreneurship (e.g., creating new ventures);
  8. Governance (cooperation at managerial level of the university of firm).

Yet, despite the resurgence in business-university collaboration, research reports consistently find that cooperation practices are highly fragmented and uncoordinated, particularly when it comes to the educational offer. Evidence also suggests that cooperation in the field of education is much less common than levels of R&D collaboration, with the exception of cooperation in the mobility of students. Furthermore, there is a very limited literature on assessing the benefits of cooperation activity on the educational offer, with most attention focusing on cooperation and collaboration in the field of research and innovation.

Background to University-Business Collaboration (UBC)

While there has historically never been a singular accepted European model of higher education, the Humboldtian principle which emphasises the 'union of teaching and research' in academic work was dominant in German speaking Europe and highly influential in parts of Eastern Europe from the late 1800s to the 1950s. This principle can be summarised as follows: “The function of the university was to advance knowledge by original and critical investigation, not just to transmit the legacy of the past or to teach skills.” This philosophy of higher education arguably led to the emphasis on collaborative and applied research for the benefit of industry, the military and wider society in places that adopted the Humboldtian model. This was in contrast to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model (as advocated by Cardinal Newman) which emphasised a liberal education, separated from commercial or professional training, and which advocated a distinction between ‘discovery’ and ‘teaching’ or the ‘Napoleonic’ model that dominated in Southern Europe, where higher education was regulated and controlled by the state. This has acted to separate educational learning from the local economy.

The establishment of the ‘civic’ universities in England (Goddard, 2009) and the Land-Grant colleges in the US (McDowell, 2003) during the 19th Century specifically at the behest of, and to meet the needs of growing industries such as agriculture and manufacturing heralded a move away from the Newman model of higher education. The primary function of these universities was to provide a skilled workforce for the new professions that were emerging as a result of the industrial and agricultural revolutions (Delanty, 2002).

Since the middle of the 20th century, the centralisation of higher education policy and increased public funding for research (Goddard, ibid) saw universities move away from the specific purpose of meeting the skills needs of their local economies, while in the US decentralised higher education and the dependence of public and private universities on local sources of funding meant that collaborative research relationships with industry became increasingly common (Mowery, 1999). Thus, the focus of UBCs in the second half of the 20th Century has tended to be centered around the exploitation of research with the approach being an assisted linear model based on technology ‘push’ (European Commission, 2011).

This approach to UBCs has resulted in a considerable emphasis on the so-called ‘triple helix’ (Etzkowitz, 2008), which emphasises how the links between university, industry and government can drive innovation. In this framework, the stress has been on the role of research, particularly in scientific and technological fields. The emergence of the high-tech industry centred around Silicon Valley on the West Coast of the US was seen as the embodiment of the success of this approach and one that policy makers around the world have sought to replicate (often with little success). This has led to a concentration of effort and resources on supporting collaborations between businesses and universities which generated ‘hard’ outputs such as patent applications and business spin offs, often to the neglect of developing the potential for ‘softer’ impacts such as human capital and social development (Science|Business Innovation Board 2012).

University-Business Cooperation in Europe

While the landscape of higher education in Europe remains heterogeneous, not least in respect of UBCs, the last 10 years following the Bologna initiative have seen significant changes in cooperation between universities and business (Technopolis, 2011) and there is a growing acceptance across member states of the “new relevance” of universities to social and economic development (EUA, 2006). This is underpinned by the Europe 2020 Growth Strategy and especially the developing ‘smart specialisations’ strategies across the European Union in preparation for the next round of structural funds, which gives increasing prominence to the role of universities not only in terms of the supply side (i.e. of research and skills) but also in supporting the demand side through capacity building and supporting the governance of regional innovation (Goddard et al, 2013).

While the level of co-operation varies considerably between different countries, universities and academic disciplines, there are many examples of successful co-operation between academia and industry throughout Europe. We highlight some examples below.

The dual education system, where students combine school and work-based learning, is practised in several countries in Europe, but is probably most developed and embedded in Germany. An OECD Review in 2010 found that the system was deeply embedded and highly valued in German society, allowing for flexible training and learning across a wide range of professions in ways that are responsive to the changing demands of the labour market. They also reported that employers were highly engaged and there was a well-resourced capacity for research to support improvement and innovation in the system.

European Business Innovation Centres (BICs) are support organisations for innovative small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) and entrepreneurs. Their mission is to contribute to the overall economic and social development of the regions through the implementation of support services to entrepreneurs, helping them to transform their innovative business ideas into reality, as well as delivering services to existing SMEs, supporting them to modernise and innovate. Many BICs are closely linked to universities, acting as a gateway to their key research centres.

Creating physical spaces where businesses, students and researchers can come together is embodied in the ‘factory’ concept practised in several Finish universities. One example is the Design Factory at Aalto University, which started in October 2008 (www.aaltodesignfactory.fi). The Factory aim is to support interdisciplinary and international co-operation between parties interested in design and development by providing a constantly developing collaboration environment for students, researchers and business practitioners. It has become an innovative environment for finding, incubating and realising new ideas together with leading scholars, top future talent, and a mixture of other companies.

Student placements are a common way of promoting cooperation between universities and industry for mutual benefit. These can range from a few weeks to work on a short term, focused project to year-long placements.

The European Commission is also working to stimulate University Business Cooperation, as a part of its approach to the modernization of university structures across the EU. One example of this is the Knowledge Alliance initiative. This is the name given to a new pilot project within the framework of the University–Business Cooperation initiative intended to stimulate the development of human capital through a process of two-way cooperation. The project encourages transnational cooperation (composed at least of 2 universities and 2 businesses from at least 3 participating countries) structured, result-driven cooperation ventures between universities and companies, bridging the gap between the two sectors to create new multidisciplinary curricula to promote entrepreneurship within education as well as developing other transferable skills such as real-time problem solving and creative thinking.

The PEOPLE initiative is an example of a knowledge alliance project focusing on the mismatch between qualifications gained by humanities and social science students and skills expected from graduates by employers in industry. The key innovative contribution is the implementation of Learning Cycles as a novel pedagogical approach that brings together interdisciplinary groups of students, faculty educators and industry professionals to solve real-life industry challenges. New learning modules were embedded in degree programmes, enabling students to gain valuable practical skills to complement their theoretical education, while demonstrating the value of that education for industry.

Furthermore, the Active8-Planet project builds on the successful practices of PEOPLE and aims to integrate the four planet-centred development principles in existing higher education learning and teaching practices: (1) Interdisciplinary & Intergenerational Co-creation; (2) People-centred Design, (3) University-Business Collaboration, (4) Environmental Ambition and Action. The co-creation activities take place in the “7+1 team projects” in which the groups of students, professors, industry professionals and other relevant stakeholders collaborate and jointly develop concepts and interventions for challenging issues, opening up possibilities for sustainable futures. The project aims to raise the first cohorts of active and passionate individuals – the so called “Planeteers” – becoming the ambassadors, who will stand for and share our key values and principles across geographical and sectoral boundaries.