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Europe Needs to Recognize External Engagement As A Profession

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European universities rank amongst the top in the world and host some of the best leadership, academics and students in the world. Yet, we seem to neglect to ignite their full potential and not offer them the right skills and knowledge to, together with external stakeholders, ensure their skills are used to the foster economic and social growth.

Challenged by the societal needs and steered by supranational and national policies, universities increasingly extend their engagement and entrepreneurial activities across campus borders. However, despite efforts, higher education institutions still perform under their potential; the degree of stakeholder cooperation, and the impact of existing activities are not yet at the desired level.

A recent report on the state of university-business cooperation in Europe (www.ub-cooperation.eu), sheds a light on the dependency between the various modes of interaction with business, and importance of facilitating and enabling cooperation to take place. Here the human factor is seen as one of the strongest drivers and determinants of success in external partnerships. This aligns with other studies, indicating the need for a qualified higher education (HE) workforce with an entrepreneurial mindset, knowledge and equipped with the skills to manage long-term strategic partnerships and manoeuvre in the university-business ecosystem. 

In support to the findings, the policy priorities identified in the 2017 renewed agenda for higher education stress once more the redefined roles of the HE workforce, of academics and practitioners, as core actors who steer the change in their own institutions. While the priorities to a large extent match with those presented in the 2011 agenda, the renewed report puts particular emphasis to the most recent concepts of external engagement, such as ‘civic’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ universities, which involves universities developing close partnerships with regional stakeholders to create a better social and economic impact.1

These concepts are well aligned with current regional development policy directions in Europe. The European Joint Research Centre (JRC) has committed itself to Smart Specialisation Strategies and the leading role HEI’s have in contributing to regional growth. Simultaneously, the new EU university ranking tool U-Multirank provides performance data on a broad range of external engagement activities of the ranked universities and the European Commission’s DG EAC has launched a self-assessment tool, HEInnovate, for universities to assess their entrepreneurial and innovative potential.

Within this context, it is questionable how well the HE staff are prepared to adopt and internalise the new institutional approaches, and knowledge on broader regional dynamics, strengths and challenges to adjust their practices.

These expectations require (a) academics to take immediate action on reorienting their resources and expertise beyond merely adopting new pedagogical methods to improve student-centred learning, and (b) practitioners to take a strategic and institutionalised approach in the governance of external cooperation.

If it is more engaged and entrepreneurial universities that we want, why do governments and universities invest significant funds in education & training to improve teaching and research but continue to neglect the area of knowledge valorisation? Rather than offering tools and indicators and references on the ‘ideal’ role of university staff in policy and strategy documents, European universities and government need to dedicate more resources and activities towards training staff at universities to become more entrepreneurial and engaged with the HEIs external stakeholders.

Practitioners’ professional education is crucial to help create the synergies and foster implementation of a coherent engagement strategy among researchers and academics. Yet, such training support is almost non-existent, with current provisions limited to only a few areas, e.g. technology transfer and intellectual property (IP) at a handful of universities. There are also a number of national and international networks (including UIIN), that offer training in this area, but it is not enough and does not yet do justice by the craft that the engagement with external stakeholders has become. It is time to shift focus from, and not solely look at investments in R&D, infrastructure or other more tangible elements and provide more support towards skill development of our higher education practitioners.