The Future of University Business Cooperation – Research, Practice and Policy
The topic of university-business cooperation (UBC) has received significant interest not only in management and policy circles but also across academics seeking to advance innovation, higher education and policy domains (e.g. Berbegal et al., 2015; Hemmert et al., 2014; Maietta et al., 2015; Sandberg et al., 2015). Indeed, a systematic review of the literature on UBC undertaken by the authors indicates that a total of 581 academic research papers were published on this topic over the last 10 years in academic journals alone. This prolific research stream has benefited from frequent reviews of the extant literature (such as Geuna and Muscio, 2009; Perkmann et al., 2013; Thune, 2009), including the development of research agendas.
Yet, to date such research agendas are limited in that they are derived from a retrospective analysis of results or the review of extant literature. Hence, they first look back to determine where the future in the discipline should be. The research reported here, on the other hand, takes a forward thinking approach, aiming to facilitate the discussion of experts as to the future directions of UBC, in turn shaping the direction of related research, practice and policy. Indeed, while much of the academic literature to date focuses on future research directions, the future directions of practice and policy are commonly lacking.
Seeking to develop a thorough understanding of the future directions of UBC research, practice and policy development, a qualitative research approach was chosen as a starting point for a multi-method study. Specifically, data collection was undertaken in Europe and Australia. In Europe, increasing both innovation and employability are key topics of Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s planning framework, with collaboration between university and business a central focus of the framework. Similarly, Australia is following a significant push towards greater cooperation, with the National Innovation and Science Agenda tabled in November 2015 and related policy initiatives facilitating related cultural change.
Academic, policy and practitioner experts attending relevant workshops and conferences in the area of UBC were invited by the authors to respond to a brief survey. Furthermore, a snowball approach was utilised in Australia, asking respondents to invite other experts in the area to respond. A final sample of 33 Australian and 88 European respondents completed open ended questions asking their perceptions of the following questions: (a) what are the most important topics practitioners/policy makers/researchers need to address in the next five years to advance UBC, (b) why are these topics particularly important, and (c) which approaches are needed for the topics to be addressed. Respondents were able to answer all questions or focus on those questions they deemed most relevant to their area of expertise.
To summarise some of the key results: Those areas deemed most critical to advance academically include the development of partnership models for UBC; with methods for partner identification and academic training noted alongside the need for research into new business models for UBC. Furthermore, the need to broaden our understanding of the extensive UBC ecosystem is highlighted as an important direction for future research. Aligned with the policy focus on measurement, not only measuring the impact of UBC but also providing evidence of such impact.
The measurement of UBC and its impact features most strongly in the emerging topics for policy makers. In this respect, some respondents call for the creation of key performance indicators (KPIs) for UBC, enabling benchmarking exercises among organisations, regions or countries. Indeed, some respondents consider that an accreditation system for those higher education institutions that engage in UBC will also feature in the future. The design of effective financial and non-financial incentives aiming to increase both academic and business engagement in UBC emerged as another emerging topic, along with the creation and improvement of UBC policy for the education domain. Another future trend highlighted only by European respondents is adaptability and simplification of policy. Specifically, respondents mention as a priority for policymakers to practice evidence-based policy making and ensure buy-in to relevant policy at all levels of policy in order to regulate UBC more efficiently and encourage more people to engage.
Respondents identified for the future of UBC practice a stronger focus on long-term relationships in UBC, driven through a greater alignment of interests, better mechanisms supporting UBC, improved monitoring of activities, as well as better stakeholder management and governance. UBC is expected to grow particularly in economically weaker regions, and outside of the technical faculties. Developing a much better understanding of UBC, embracing entrepreneurship and a focus on dual study programs and other student-centred UBC types also feature heavily in the results.
Given the limited scope of the abstract, the presentation at the conference will elaborate on the specific insights gained, both across continents and across the three areas of the triple helix framework. Based on the insights gained qualitatively, a quantitative study starts soon to verify the importance and current status of the future directions identified herein, with some results already available for presentation at the conference.