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The changing role and challenges for academic institutions

Editors: Göransson, Bo, Brundenius, Claes (Eds.)

This is an extract from Universities in Transition The Changing Role and Challenges for Academic Institutions.

In recent decades, a number of structural changes frequently described in terms such as globalization, the information age, and the rise of the knowledge-based economy are significantly transforming the way we acquire, disseminate, and transform knowledge. Among other things, these structural changes, to which one could add the demise of the linear model of the innovation process and an accelerating pace of change, have resulted in knowledge production becoming closer and more directly linked to economic competitiveness. It could be argued that today knowledge and competencies play a more critical role than ever before in national economic growth and welfare creation.

The above-described developments put new and urgent demands on academic institutions to adjust to the changing needs of society and economy. In particular, there is growing pressure on the institutions of higher education and research in developed economies to find and affirm their new role in the national innovation system, while their counterparts in developing economies need to define their role in supporting the emerging structures of the innovation system.

Consequently, there is a global tendency toward reforms of universities and education systems. While there is a general trend, the emerging role of universities in different countries on different levels of economic development will of course vary.

The same argument is applicable to the concept of innovation systems. In its current understanding, innovation systems refer mostly to highly developed countries, with strong institutional capabilities in education, research, finance, training, and infrastructure. In these countries, the main policy challenge is to develop stronger cross-sectoral interaction (especially between academic institutions and industry) and broadly accepted visions of technoeconomic development.

In most developing countries, on the contrary, the evolution of innovation systems is a much more complicated issue, because a number of basic social institutions are rudimentary or perhaps even non-existent. Hence, innovation systems in many ways have to be “created,” either on the basis of existing sectors (e.g., a knowledge-based agricultural sector), or on emerging technologies and sectors (for instance, locally customized ICT). In this creation process, universities tend to be important players, given a number of specific features, such as their potential global integration into technological and scientific networks, their tradition as relatively autonomous organizations, their relationship to international diasporas, etc. Hence, in the development process, universities are not just one of many important institutions, they are potentially one of the most important.

There is a growing consensus, first, that universities and research institutions play a key role in national innovation systems, and, second, that their role is changing significantly. Universities have become key players of the innovation system, both as providers of human capital and as incubators for entrepreneurial activities.

The ability of countries to grow and prosper will, thus, depend critically on the ability of their universities and university systems to adjust to their new role. The notion of the increasingly important, and significantly changed, role of universities is not only important to highly developed economies, but is also a relevant and topical issue for countries in all stages of economic development.

More specifically, universities play multiple roles in the development/transition process by:

  • Creating (potential) nodes in global knowledge networks. This process that is also driven by the expansionist tendencies of universities in developed countries, seeking new engagements and roles outside their home base (i.e., MIT in China, Stockholm School of Economics in the Baltic states, Harvard’s Dubai Initiative, and Copenhagen Business School in St. Petersburg).
  • Developing a basis for social capital, i.e., as a “neutral” meeting ground in countries perhaps torn by corruption, lack of integrative mechanisms, and lack of stable relations between state and industry, and between companies.
  • Providing a source of entrepreneurship in countries with a lack of entrepreneurial traditions.
  • Offering nodes to international diasporas – personal connections and potential networks between developed and developing countries.

The responsiveness of universities, and of the university system, varies considerably among institutions and countries. Universities in many regions of Europe can currently be described as being in a state of crisis, which is partially caused by the inability to respond to the changing conditions. Thus, many universities in Europe currently suffer from some of the same maladies as their counterparts in developing countries; an acute lack of funding, problems with maintaining quality of research and education, and with providing knowledge and education that meet the changing needs of their surrounding society and economy. In addition, there is a significant generational shift in university staff and a growing need for alternative sources for education and research. All these external and internal pressures for change impelled Burton Clark to declare over a decade ago that “[T]he universities of the world has entered a time of disquieting turmoil that has no end in sight” (Clark 1998: xiii). If anything, the development during the following years has added to the plight of the university system in the developed countries as well as in the developing world.