Reflections on the Regional Engagement of Universities

A couple of weeks ago Orkestra and Deusto University hosted an international symposium on the regionally-engaged university. The idea was to stimulate reflection around the organisational and relational barriers that academic organisations face when they seek to be key, engaged players in their regional innovation ecosystems.

Around 20 participants from ten countries got together for two days in Bilbao to present and discuss their ideas in sessions organised around regional cases of university engagement and themes such as the role of institutions, culture and leadership and the effects of specific types of contexts (national HE settings, trans-border, less absorptive).

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The premise of our discussions was, of course, that the engagement of universities in their regions and cities is important. There is a widely recognised need for more effective interaction between academics and other agents in society, so that university research and teaching becomes more relevant for the pressing societal challenges we are facing. John Goddard and Ellen Hazelcorn talk of the need to re-assert the public good role of higher education in turbulent times, responding to challenges and opportunities created by the growing populist backlash against globalisation. Indeed, at the symposium we discussed a series of triggers that are opening more space for universities to play roles as place-based anchors. These include the politics of austerity, regional unemployment crises, the influential agenda around regional smart specialisation strategies, and the fallout from Brexit.

It is not easy to summarise two days of wide-ranging discussions in which we explored a whole range of issues around how universities can fill this space and play a more engaged role in their regions. One way of grouping together ideas is in terms of specific barriers for academics engaging more and better in their regions. In the cases that we discussed several key barriers were identified, including:

  • Lack of the time needed for deep engagement processes with regional stakeholders.
  • Fears among academics of loss of visibility of their research in the academic community, and/or loss of research control.
  • The dominant academic culture, and also specific place-based cultures, working against regional engagement of academics.
  • The career structures in universities, which tend to reward certain types of publications in certain types of journals, exacerbating the above barriers.
  • The national higher education policy frameworks (and associated funding mechanisms), which often mean regional engagement is ‘swimming against the tide’.

Another, more positive, way of summarising the discussions is in terms of what institutional changes are needed to move past these sorts of barriers. Much discsussion was focused on institutional design, both within existing university structures (for example departments as the ‘homes’ of academics, and the relations among departments and with other elements of university management), and in terms of the design of new new intermediary institutions (of which Orkestra itself is one example). More attention needs to be given as to how institutional design can create the spaces and the appropriate incentives for academics to engage with regional stakeholders around their research and teaching.

There is also a need to understand more about the possibilities of inter-institutional design, recognising the complementary roles that different types of institutions can play within a region and across regions. In this sense the development of effective multi-level mechanisms seems key to bridge the regional engagement of individual academics, with that of groups of academics, of their universities, and ultimately between universities that have complementary capacities for addressing specific regional challenges.

Educational programmes can offer interesting opportunities to build these mechanisms and spark research engagement, for example by using challenge-based projects and interdisciplinary teams to break down some of the traditional barriers among both students and faculty. The development of ‘blended professionals’ capable of playing multiple roles, and new types of ‘research facilitation’ positions, were also highlighted as potential steps towards more effective regional engagement.

Perhaps the best way to summarise the symposium, however, is in terms of the key questions that characterised the discussions and that form an agenda for ongoing research and reflection:

  • How do we design institutions in ways that foster an academic culture conducive to engagement in place? And that foster academics who are ‘citizens of place’?
  • How do we deal with the different levels that are involved in regional engagement processes (university management, research groups, departments, academics … )?
  • What funding models are most appropriate to foster more and better regional engagement?
  • What is it that switches the trajectories of institutions and breaks their usually strong inertias?
  • Is there a trade-off between academic excellence and regional impact of research? Is it binding? Can it be bridged?
  • How do we create space for and generate capacities among blended professionals?
  • How do we balance the local and the global (for example in universities’ contributions to regional smart specialisation agendas)?
  • How do we deal with issues of power and conflict in academic engagement processes?

In looking to explore these questions it is important to continue to bring together different experiences, and above all to be open to learning from other places. We learned, for example, that many of the social issues and challenges that European universities struggle to engage with often form the core of research agendas in Latin American universities. There is much to be gained from a more open-minded sharing of practices if we are to move towards regionally-engaged universities that make the best possible contibution to societal challenges.

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