#EURegionsWeek UNIVERSITY: Maximising the Contribution of Universities to Regional Innovation – Lessons and Toolkits for Policymaking

Thu 10, October 2019
11:30 - 13:00 CET

Universities are increasingly seen as critical actors in regional innovation, especially in peripheral places. However many of the conceptual frameworks for understanding the role of universities have not been flexible enough to reflect the specificities of the place and context in which they operate. This session will start by outlining the policy 'problem'.  It will then present the findings from three key initiatives that have sought to address this. This will be followed by a robust discussion in plenary to determine ways forward for better policy design and implementation in the future.

The role and prominence of universities in contributing to regional innovation has been increasingly recognised by policy makers over the past 20 years, especially in peripheral places. There have been several attempts in recent years to create conceptual frameworks and models to help universities and policy makers understand the role and contribution of higher education to local and regional innovation, however, these models have failed to fully reflect (or given insufficient attention to) the impact of the regional context (economic, social, political), the policy environment for higher education and territorial development and the diversity of management and leadership structures of universities themselves. This has led to the development of static models that rarely work outside of the immediate context in which they were developed and therefore risk leading to design of policies that are not fit for purpose. 

This session has the following objectives:

  1. To present a brief overview of the nature of the policy 'problem' – why do many universities still not realise their full potential in contribution to regional innovation?
  2. To present the learning from three key initiatives that have sought to better understand the role of universities in regional innovation which have developed policy oriented tools and frameworks to help regional actors design more effective and place-based approaches
  3. To discuss in plenary the merits and weaknesses of these findings as tools to underpin policy design and suggest ways they could be improved for implementation
Peter Baur, Senior Expert, DG EAC, European Commission, Belgium.
John Edwards, Research Officer, European Commission – Joint Research Centre, Spain.
Louise Kempton, Senior Research Associate, CURDS & Associate Dean (Research and Innovation), HaSS Faculty, Newcastle University, United Kingdom.
David Marlow, Chief Executive, Third Life Economics Ltd, United Kingdom.
A greener Europe
Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP), European Regional Science Association (ERSA), Regional Studies Association European Foundation
English (EN)

Session summary

Introduction and purpose: The session – organised and supported by RSA and ERSA – was convened to present and discuss university roles in local and regional innovation. The session was chaired by David Marlow, with presentations from Peter Baur, John Edwards and Louise Kempton.

Context: David’s introductory remarks outlined three fundamental challenges for universities seeking to optimise their local and regional contributions, especially in England – the pervasive national system of higher education (HE); the fragmentation and competitiveness of local and regional leadership; and the institutional barriers in the university itself. There are conceptual solutions to this – but even where these are practised, universities still need to reflect on how to manage their change and challenger roles in a ‘local incumbent elite’ and also recognise the limitations of their scale and reach. These challenges tend to be more acute in lagging regions – where scale and reach is often more prominent that institutionally-rich successful places.

David invited John, Peter and Louise to consider how far their work addressed these challenges.

Presentations: John reflected on Smart Specialisation models which have been effective in identifying and then programming regional priorities in innovation-led development. There are lessons from current 2014-20 experience on which to build in the future – but ensuring a continuing programme requirement and deploying the capacity that has been built in S3 as a set of tools and techniques, suggest that this is an approach where EU interventions can add value.

Peter outlined the experience with university-business forums, knowledge alliances, and the HEInnovate tool. These can be local, regional, national or EU in scale. The tool does appear to strengthen the innovative mindset and self-awareness of participants – and can build bridges between universities and their business and civic partners.

Louise’s RSA policy expo focusing on universities and regional development has been developing an instrument for assisting universities and regional partners move from relatively static ‘civic university’ diagnoses into dynamic policy making and implementation. They have found context is crucial – with totally different approaches needed in, say, a single university in a peripheral region as opposed to multiple universities in a core city/region.

Discussions and tentative conclusions: There were several comments and resulting discussions on the presentations. Issues raised include:

  • Adapting and applying the tools in different university models – e.g. technical universities, distributed universities (like Highlands & Islands)
  • The relationships of these models to structural national and devolution reforms
  • The need to build long-term relationships which can endure inevitable changes in personnel, operational setbacks and external shocks
  • The role of funding – like the EUs – to incentivise the application of these types of tools, but the poor track record of delivering synergies between different funding programmes and the different institutional donors and beneficiaries of them – including different EU DGs

In conclusion, there appears to be broad recognition that there are now a number of tools that can be deployed to increase effective university collaboration with and impact in the places where they are located. The question is whether and how far the outputs from these tools’ application can be built into policy and put into practice effectively – delivering enduring transformational outcomes.

Take away message

It is suggested that success is more assured where there is some devolution of HE powers and system, a cohesive local and regional leadership team, and funding available. These observations have specific relevance for future national HE and devolution reforms, and for the next round of EU policies and programmes – especially in lagging regions.


Additional information

David Marlow said "The session demonstrates convincingly that relevant tools and techniques have been developed and applied to increase universities' understanding of their role in place and the way they interact with local regional partners. The challenge is to translate these methodological exercises into effective change and transformation in practice."