29 May 2019

“People and Relationships Drive University-Business Cooperation”

For almost three years, IRI UL has been coordinating an Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliance project PEOPLE, which is strengthening cooperation between higher education institutions and industry with the aim of developing skills and competences of students in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. We talked about the characteristics, barriers and incentives for university-business cooperation with Peter Baur, Senior Expert in the ‘Innovation and EIT’ unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture. He works mainly on files related to innovation, entrepreneurship, university-business cooperation and the role of higher education institutions for regional development.

Let us start with a general and a bit provocative question: Why is university-business cooperation so hard to achieve and sustain?

Before starting answering your questions, I would just like to highlight one important point. The focus of our university-business cooperation activities is on educational aspects, ie. how universities[1] and business[2] can cooperate to enrich the learning experience of graduates, to ensure that they acquire the mix of knowledge, skills and competences they need to find later-on their way in their professional and private life; how universities and business can cooperate to develop the innovation capacity of university staff and business employees.

To your first question – A question you should ask to colleagues from Business and Higher Education. No, seriously, you can probably find many reasons or explanations, but for me one of the main reasons is that those who do not cooperate or are not interested in such cooperation very often do not appreciate the value such cooperation can generate in the longer term, the value for the individuals, the value for the organisations and the value for society at large.

We have recently undertaken a large study on university-business cooperation[i], and it shows that those organisations (and people) that cooperate are interested in intensifying and developing further cooperation activities. They clearly see the positive impacts of those activities, which largely outweigh the efforts needed to get such cooperation up and running.

Culture and context play an important role. There are huge differences between countries, between higher education institutions within countries and even between faculties within higher education institutions. And on the business side, in addition to context and culture, an important factor is size: large companies tend to cooperate much more with higher education institutions than SMEs. And the big challenge for Europe is to develop the cooperation between SMEs and higher education institutions.

In your opinion, which are currently the main barriers and gaps when it comes to university-business cooperation in Europe? 

In the above-mentioned study, one of the questions asked for the barriers preventing university-business cooperation.  Academics, leadership of higher education institutions and business people agree that the lack of funding and resources is a barrier to cooperation. Academics identify also bureaucracy in their institutions and the lack of time for university-business cooperation activities as barriers. Business representatives consider the different time horizons (short-term (business) vs long-term (HE)) and different motivations as barriers.

Legal framework conditions and the lack of relevant support structures and incentives are other barriers mentioned.

However, the study also underlined that it is not sufficient to remove the barriers.

Much more important is it to develop and support relevant drivers, understood as motivators and facilitators towards university-business cooperation. If the right drivers are in place, cooperation will happen, even if certain barriers continue to exist.

The study shows that each stakeholder group has its own motivation for cooperating: the academics, the university leadership and the business.  It is important to understand and acknowledge the different motivational drivers and build on them.

The most important facilitators are mutual trust and commitment, common interest and goals, and these apply to all stakeholder groups.  People and relationships drive UBC.  The big challenge is then to move this trust and relationships from the individual to the institutional level, building strategic, long-term alliances.

How do Knowledge Alliance projects contribute towards bridging these gaps? What are the key impacts that Commission wants to achieve with KA projects?

The Knowledge Alliance action under the Erasmus+ programme aims at strengthening Europe’s innovation capacity and at fostering innovation in higher education, business and the broader socio-economic environment. For us, people are at the heart of innovation. And education, particularly higher education is instrumental to make people more open to innovation, to make them more innovative.  We are convinced that closer and better cooperation between higher education institutions and business is a major building block in achieving this. New innovative teaching and learning methods and approaches, developed and implemented in partnership by higher education institutions and businesses enable students to acquire the set of knowledge, skills and competences that will help them to face future challenges and to adapt to a quickly changing and evolving environment. And this obviously will help organisations and eco-systems to become more innovative and resilient.

The organisations, in particular the people (from higher education and business) that are participating in the Knowledge Alliance projects, experience the value of such cooperation. The feedback we have so far collected is very positive, as well from representatives of the higher education sector as from the business sector.

The challenge is to bring these positive experiences from the project level to the institutional, cross-institutional and systemic level. How to ensure that these positive experiences do not remain on the level of individuals or the faculties/departments involved but are taken up by the whole organisation, by other organisations or on the system level?

The Knowledge Alliances are a relatively small action within the Erasmus+ programme. Over the period 2014-2020, around 150 Knowledge Alliance projects will be funded, involving around 1500 organisations. This is a good start, but we need more. This is why it is so important that each project has a clear dissemination strategy and promotes actively its results.

On our level, in addition to facilitating the access to and supporting the dissemination of the projects’ results, we promote the concept of Knowledge Alliances to Member States and regions. We hope that over time this cooperation between higher education and business becomes a more common feature in the European higher education landscape.

PEOPLE project aims to demonstrate the added value of social sciences and humanities when it comes to product and service development. Could interdisciplinarity present a driver for university-business cooperation or is it just an additional burden?

Very interesting what you say. We see it almost the other way around. University-Business cooperation as a driver for interdisciplinarity, for cooperation between different disciplines in higher education. We firmly believe that more interdisciplinary activities are needed in our higher education systems, as well as a stronger integration of education and research. Examples where students from different faculties, or sometimes even from different higher education institutions work together in teams on problems or challenges that are stemming from the business world (or public sector,  ..) are really inspiring and a very valuable learning experience for the students. And such interdisciplinary projects can be very instrumental in involving social sciences and humanities. The new problems and challenges brought forward in nowadays society require the expertise of students from social sciences and humanities. The work of the PEOPLE project is important in raising the awareness of the business sector on the added value of this expertise.

This might also allow students in social sciences or humanities to get more in contact with businesses during their studies. Very often we see that when cooperation takes place between higher education and business it is often focusing on technical or business-related study programmes, much less on social sciences or humanities.

However, the problems and challenges graduates will have to work on after having finished their higher education studies will be multi-disciplinary in nature and often require expertise from different disciplines, including the social sciences or humanities. Therefore, exposure to relevant problems during their studies is a valuable learning experience for students from all fields of study, and obviously of high added value for the organisations involved, higher education and business.

What will be the key future perspectives and policy developments in the area of European university-business cooperation?  

Here you have to be a little patient. The key future perspectives and policy developments in the area of European university-business cooperation will be set by the new Commission, which should take office by the beginning of November 2019.

However certain activities will continue.

As you might know, the European Commission has adopted its proposal for the successor programme of Erasmus+ for the period 2021-2027[3] on 30 May 2018. The Commission proposes a doubling of the budget to 30 billion euros for the period 2021-2027. Its focus on “evolution, not revolution” means that the future programme will continue to cover schools, vocational education and training, higher education and adult learning – youth and sport, but in a more streamlined manner.  Like in the current programme the proposed structure of the programme to address its objectives is built around three actions:

  • learning mobility (‘key action 1’);
  • cooperation among organisations and institutions (‘key action 2’); and
  • support to policy development and cooperation (‘key action 3’);

Key action 2 covers 4 actions, one of them being “partnerships for innovation to strengthen Europe’s innovation capacity”, under which fall the Knowledge Alliances.

The proposal has been discussed in the Council and in the European Parliament; the overall feedback is very possitive. Formal discussions between the three institutions will start after the set-up of the new European Parliament following the elections in May.

I would also like to inform you that the Commission will organise the 8th University-Business Forum in Brussels on 24-25 October 2019; the Knowledge Alliance action is one of the spin-offs of the Forum. The UB Forum will bring together around 400 reprentatives from higher education, business, public authorities and other relevant stakeholder organisations. It will feature keynotes, plenary discussions and a number of parallel workshops, an ideal platform for exchanging experience and good practices, mutual learning and networking. Given the timing, this edition will provide a good opportunity to take stock of past actvities and learnings and discuss possible future developments, including in relation to the Knowledge Alliances.  Mark the date in your agenda…

To conclude, what would be your final advice for PEOPLE project?

Do your best to achieve the objectives that you set for the project. Use the project as a springboard for sustainable activity. Connect and exchange with other Knowledge Alliances. Disseminate your findings and results and make the value of your cooperation known and visible within and outside your organisation.

I wish you to achieve your ultimate goal, namely to » strengthening the employability of sociology, psychology and anthropology graduates, stimulating their creativity and entrepreneurship, forming new professional paths and overall fostering innovation and improving quality and relevance of the higher education in general.«

[1] University means any type of higher education institution which, in accordance with national law or practice, offers recognised degrees or other recognised tertiary level qualifications, whatever such establishment may be called.

[2] Business should be understood in a large sense in this context. It does not only refer to profit-making private companies, but covers also public organisations, hospitals, museums, NGOs, etc.

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/news/commission-adopts-proposal-next-erasmus-programme-2021-2027_en

[i] The State of University-Business Cooperation in Europe, European Commission, 2018, available at https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/1b03ee59-67a4-11e8-ab9c-01aa75ed71a1/language-en