The Pathways and Challenges of University Engagement: Comparative Case Studies in Austria
MODUL University Working Paper No. 7
31 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2016
Date Written: November 27, 2016
Research universities fill a variety of roles within contemporary society (Goldstein, Maier, Luger (1995). Arguably the most important role has been providing advanced education to a segment of the population so that they have the requisite know-how to enter the professions. A second has been to generate knowledge through research that leads to scientific progress over time and indirectly often leads to productivity growth in the economy. These have been the traditional missions of research universities since their founding in the late 19th century.
An additional role of universities, often called the ‘third mission’, has recently become more prominent in Europe and North America, although its genesis can be traced back to the land-grant idea of the Morrill Act of 1864 in the U.S. Its recent increased emphasis relates to the recognition that in the increasingly competitive, global economy, knowledge capital has become widely recognized as the critical factor for long-term productivity growth and economic competitiveness. As such there has been increasing pressure for revising the historical social covenant between universities and societies, as articulated by Parsons and Platt (1973), so as to provide knowledge of wider value, beyond the ivory tower (Benneworth and Sanderson 2009). This pressure to revise the division of responsibilities of the university within society, not by accident, has coincided with the ‘entrepreneurial turn’ of higher education (Goldstein 2010). The ‘third mission’ literature refers to interactions between university researchers and external, non-academic organizations that are initiated and maintained either by the university as an organization or by its individual researchers (Perkman et al. 2013). We view this concept of the ‘third mission’ as encompassing a subset of the dyadic relationships in the triple helix model (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 1997). The non-academic organizations can in principle be businesses, government agencies, research institutes, or NGOs, though in practice they veer towards large corporations with well-developed R&D capability.
The term ‘university engagement’ has sometimes been used synonymously with ‘the third mission’. In this chapter, however, we use it to describe a more restricted set of university interactions with external organizations. The conception of university engagement here is the use of know-how and expertise within universities for regional problem-solving, leadership, and the enhancement of regional development through the strengthening of the regional economy and civil society. This restricted definition can include technology development and technology transfer to businesses, but the geographic focus is the region in which the university is embedded, and the ultimate purpose is to build and sustain a healthy social economy in the region. In this sense we may refer to our conception as ‘public engagement’. Here the term ‘public’ refers not to working for government organizations, but to acting towards enhancing the public, or ‘common’ good. Also, while the primary motivation of engagement should be directed to enhancing regional development, we recognize, in the case of public universities, that such activity helps to legitimate and maintain government funding for universities in an era of tight public budgets. In the cases of both public and private universities, successful efforts in regional development help to make the city/region more attractive for inducing the ‘best and the brightest’ faculty, researchers, and graduate students to locate there within the increasingly competitive world of higher education.
With many regions facing challenging development problems, and the concentration of know- how and expertise across a wide range of fields within research universities, we ask why some universities become more active in engagement than others, and why some universities are more able to be successful in enhancing regional economic and social development through their engagement activities. We posit that the possible factors include institutional characteristics of the university, the particular leadership of the university, the region’s economic structure and condition, and the demands placed on the university by various external stakeholders.
Among the possible institutional characteristics are:
(i) the university’s designated mission, often stipulated by (or in some cases negotiated with) the relevant government ministry, (ii) the type of university in terms of areas of expertise and range of subject areas (e.g., classical scholarly, technical, business/economics, medical), (iii) the set of rewards/incentives in place for faculty to be involved in engagement activities, and (iv) the extent to which individual institutes or departments units have discretion or relative autonomy over the implementation of university policies.
It has been noted that distinct from the official mission and policies of the university, it is the particular leaders of the university that affect whether it becomes highly engaged or not. Does the rectorate have a strong interest in and vision for the university being engaged? Does the rector have the ability (charisma) to convince the faculty and staff to adopt and work for this vision? Are the university leaders already well-connected to external political and business leaders?
The regional economy in which the university is located may consist of competitive and innovative industry sectors and firms, or it may have an unfortunate legacy of an older industrial structure which is presently in decline. The key industries of the region may match well with the technical areas of expertise within the university, or on the other hand the match may be missing.
Finally many universities now feel the demands being placed upon them have outstripped the resources they have to fulfill all demands. If so, this requires either making tradeoffs among them, or else becoming highly entrepreneurial in attracting additional resources. If the former, then the university may feel it has to forego engagement activities because it has fixed obligations for teaching.
With budgetary pressure, externally funded research may have higher priority than engagement since the latter often requires uncompensated resource expenditure. The region’s particular political structure and political actors may make a difference in which engagement activities the university prioritizes, although in Austria the public universities tend to stay removed from political parties.
To summarize, there are a large number of potential factors that may shape and explain the variation in universities’ commitment to engagement, the approaches they take, and success in their efforts. Our aim is to try to shed more light on which factors seem to be most salient.
Keywords: University Engagement, Entrepreneurial, Comparative Case Study
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