Spaces for Dialogue, Spaces for Connection: New Structures and Dynamics in Universities’ Regional Engagement

Authored by

Liliana Fonseca, is a PhD fellow in Public Policy at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, and is an ESR fellow of the RUNIN project, which received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 722295.

In recent years, universities have been increasingly expected to engage with their immediate territory. Whether based on the idea that these publicly funded institutions have a responsibility towards society, or in the wide recognition of their valuable contribution to regional innovation capacity and development (Arbo & Benneworth, 2007; Uyarra, 2010), universities’ regional engagement has evolved to become a central tenet within academia. According to Etzkowitz (1990), the introduction and integration of a third (following teaching and research) mission of external engagement is a “revolution” of the academic ethos, signalling greater changes in universities’ organisational structures.

In search of diverse and alternative forms of funding, and/or choosing to embody a highlighted role in the development of their region, universities have created designated offices to manage various facets of engagement and to strengthen these external relations and outreach functions. Knowledge transfer offices, strategic communication offices, and other types of appointments expressly related to engagement and other collaborative activities have become a common sight across higher education institutions (Arbo & Benneworth, 2007).

Such organisational structures often focused on the more marketable aspects of knowledge transfer, on patents, spin-offs and other university-industry relationships. However, societal expectations are varied, and universities’ engagement is increasingly expected to materialise in novel ways (Fonseca, 2018). University collaboration with civil society, non-governmental associations and government authorities is, although understudied, progressively promoted in the policy and academic discourse. The EU’s Smart Specialisation cohesion policy framework is a contemporary example of a policy driving universities to participate in more extensive third mission activities, namely designing strategy processes, guiding participative forums, and matching industrial and research assets (European Commission, 2014; Foray et al., 2012). With these further expectations, universities have been led to create closer ties with other stakeholders. How have they adapted their organisational structure to respond to these new challenges? And are they framing their engagement more strategically, as befits smart specialisation?

Indeed, a new organisational structure seems to have emerged within certain universities, that I will refer to as strategic network interface units. These are sector-specific cluster-like structures that aim at coordinating collaboration between academics and other societal stakeholders (e.g. local and regional government and industry) in a multidisciplinary and flexible manner to foster innovation in the region they are embedded in. Having conducted interview-based research at two universities where this type of structure has been created – the University of Aveiro and the Autonomous University of Barcelona – I can highlight some of their unique features:

The University of Aveiro has created since 2015 what it calls ‘technological platforms’ and is now reformulating as ‘areas of cooperation’. Managed by the university’s technology transfer office (UATEC), they are intended to “improve collaboration between universities and companies” in areas of relevance of the region and of its smart specialisation strategy. Among the 8 created are included the Sea, the Agro-food, and the Sustainable Habitat Platform. Their organisation comprises scientific ‘coordinators’ and academic ‘collaborators’, a virtual hierarchy which has been reported to cause friction at times, specifically in the assignment of research projects. While some in the academic community choose to engage dynamically with both private and public actors through them, others use them as more flexible service-provision ‘tools’ and as a means of forming networks that will facilitate access to regional funding.

The Autonomous University of Barcelona started its ‘strategic research communities’, or CORE, in 2013, with 4 currently in operation: Smart Cities, Mental Health, Cultural Heritage and Education & Occupation. They are strategically tied with the university’s immediate region, taking advantage of the network of institutions in the UAB campus (UAB-CIE Sphere). The main objectives of these structures are internal coordination of researchers, to more effectively promote a multidisciplinary response to regional needs and participation in research projects; and a strategic alignment with European and national funding priorities. Contrasting with Aveiro’s technological platforms, each CORE is managed and led by a single person within the university’s Strategic Development Unit. Previously an academic, the coordinator becomes a nexus and representative for the academic community within their respective/assigned strategic area, but does not conduct research, eliminating the hierarchical issue. The CORE also heavily emphasise collaboration with the public sector, pursuing multiple projects with surrounding municipalities.

Despite the widely different territorial contexts, these structures were considered in both cases as essential mechanisms to help spur novel ways of regional collaboration. While their purpose is still inextricably tied to the attainment of funding (particularly EU funding), the academic community of both universities emphasised these interface units as privileged spaces for dialogue and connection between actors. Interestingly, these virtual spaces or structures served as more than a bridge between the university and the surrounding territory. They served as a way to connect the academic community itself, improving internal communication and making academics more aware of university assets.

These structures formulate an attempt to move beyond bidirectional and punctual university-society relationships toward more dynamic, knowledge-based and complimentary configurations through dialogue and trust. As they develop over time, reshape their focus and assume different configurations, it becomes more relevant to discuss the pressures at play that lead universities to change. Furthermore, these strategic network interface units also facilitate attaining funding and relating it to a regional priority area, a requirement of current EU frameworks. This can therefore be an advantageous exercise for other universities.

The conclusions presented above are preliminary and final results are foreseen to be published in 2020, as an article and as a part of the author’s doctoral thesis. The research aims to study the role of universities in regional innovation policies and practices, mapping their related engagement activities and their organisational adaptation to associated challenges and opportunities. To learn more about these issues, check recent publications:

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