Location, Location, Location – What Do We Know About University Engagement in Rural Regions?

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A recent case study of the University of Lincoln (UK) suggests, that perhaps university engagement should be further studied in different regional contexts. Currently, the research literature is focused on a rather idealistic ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to university engagement, which overlooks the importance of regional environment. However, we know that finding synergies with specific local conditions and universities’ institutional responses can be problematic (e.g. Benneworth et al. 2016), so a particular regional context does matter. The case of Lincoln, examined through entrepreneurial architecture framework originally conceptualized by Vorley & Nelles (2009), can shed some light on the characteristics of university engagement in rural regions.

Delivering third stream activities in such sparse innovation ecosystem can be more complicated due to a diverse economic base, lower skills level, geographical remoteness (Charles, 2016) and weaker entrepreneurial traditions (Oftedal & Foss, 2015). Another issue is that universities in rural regions tend to be smaller satellite campuses, so they struggle to respond to the local expectations often based on the capacity of full-range universities. However, universities in rural regions do their share: they contribute to regional development e.g. by increasing skills levels, offering local access to higher education and responding to regional educational needs (Charles, 2016). Often universities in rural environments can actually have a stronger regional focus; for example, their strategic choices can be more employer-led and largely based on regional priority sectors.

This is exactly the case with the University of Lincoln (UoL). It is located in a rural region of Lincolnshire in East Midlands and has expanded significantly in the first two decades of its existence. Therefore, it provided an interesting case for observing how a university can efficiently engage with local stakeholders in a rural region. UoL has strategically aimed to develop a set of structures to support the regional economy, especially to liaise more with local businesses. It has also tried to address the problem of retaining graduates in the area, for example, by offering graduates free services and small-scale grants to foster entrepreneurship. The establishment of these and other support activities as well as local large-scale business collaboration initiatives, including the Lincoln Science and Innovation Park, is considered as a concrete way to attract more companies to the region – though the activities are mostly located in the central Lincoln.

Many of the UoL’s engagement activities, varying from offering state-of-the-art facilities to a range of business support services to local companies, often result from a tight collaboration with the regional stakeholders, in particular, with the local authorities. They expect the university to take action in the absence of other local knowledge institutions. These partnerships, typically on top management level, as well as demands of the local job market have influenced UoL’s curricula design. As an example, the establishment of the UoL’s new engineering school resulted from a long-term cooperation with Siemens Ltd. The local priority sectors, such as agriculture and food manufacturing, also steer UoL’s research orientation towards serving local businesses.

These tentative findings from the case of UoL imply that universities located in rural regions have to deal with increased expectations and take leadership outside of academia. Top-level linkages with external stakeholders steer both the structures and the strategic choices towards serving the local job market and regional priority sectors. However, the engagement is linked more to individuals than institutions, which makes it vulnerable to staff changes and quite complicated to manage. The implementation of engagement activities could be more effective if it did not rely on strong personal commitment of a few individuals, but on strategic institutional efforts to work more closely with external stakeholders. This gets us back to the starting point: what do we actually know about successful university engagement in different regional contexts? The case of UoL gave a glimpse of its features in rural regions, but if one-size-does-not-fit-all, the whole discussion around university engagement should become broader, taking different specific territorial characteristics affecting HEIs operational environment into account.

Find more details about the case of University of Lincoln in a recently released article “Third mission and regional context: assessing universities’ entrepreneurial architecture in rural regions”, published in Regional Studies, Regional Science, Vol. 6, 2019, special issue on ‘Universities, innovation and regional development.’

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