“With very few exceptions, any regional involvement of universities in the non-commercial field is mostly voluntary and driven by highly motivated and committed scientists,” notes Verena Radinger-Peer, who is a specialist in spatial planning and regional studies at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. There is no recognition, let alone institutionalisation, of such commitment, which means that it is rarely seen as being an obvious or legitimate endeavour. This criticism may come as a surprise, as many HEIs do indeed maintain close relations with the regional business and industry sectors. Indicators such as the creation of spin-offs, the number of patent applications or an increase in sales through research and development are quantitative evidence of these relations. This type of regional engagement is, however, linked to the commercial function of HEIs. A more contemporary understanding of regional commitment includes sustainable regional development and its social and environmental dimensions.
In a research project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, Radinger-Peer has now explored the area of non-commercial regional activities in detail for the first time. This includes, for example, services provided by an HEI in terms of consultancy, mediation between regional stakeholders or expertise provided to local strategy processes. The discussion about the so-called “third mission”, i.e. the services an HEI provides for the region and society that go beyond teaching and research, is in full swing, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is increasing the pressure. Whether and in what ways HEIs are proactively addressing regional challenges are among the central questions that Radinger-Peer is investigating.
Regional engagement is a long process
What is new here is not just the focus on non-commercial regional activities, but also the process-oriented approach and a cross-border comparison based on three case studies. With the support of fellow researchers from Germany and the Netherlands, Verena Radinger-Peer is currently examining developments over the past thirty years at two HEIs in each of the three regions Linz-Wels (Austria), Western Palatinate (Germany) and Twente (Netherlands). By analysing the process from the founding of a given HEI to the present day, she gains a better understanding of several aspects: How does an HEI develop its role in the region? What factors influence regional commitment? Why does it sometimes work better than at other times, despite similar conditions? Radinger-Peer’s results spring from a combination of several methods. So far, the researchers have conducted a total of some 73 in-depth and 15 open exploratory interviews with people from six HEIs and with regional actors – from local mayors to NGOs – involved in regional development.
Focus groups are planned for 2020. In addition, Radinger-Peer analyses all relevant documents from the past three decades, which contain information on the HEIs’ founding and development history. Despite their differences, they have much in common: their size, time of establishment after the Second World War, comparable curricula, the fact that they are not the only educations of higher learning in the region and their having to confront structural change.
Self-interest is more important than regional development
“I would be reluctant to describe HEIs per se as change agents for their region. The research results show that their regional role is influenced by many factors. Regional problems are not always the catalyst, but HEIs at times tend to initiate parallel regional development paths,” underlines the researcher, citing unemployment as one case in point. The HEIs compared in the study offer jobs and attract students and companies to the region. They do not, however, produce novel solutions. Even where spin-off start-ups create new market opportunities they are not always of use to people in the region. Those affected by long-term or youth unemployment hardly benefit from such activities. “We have found that HEIs are primarily active within their own sphere of interest and get involved where they derive benefits from that,” says Radinger-Peer and adds: “In the interviews, regional was also repeatedly associated with ‘provincial’, which contrasts with the universities’ striving for internationality.” Regional policy-makers are sometimes disappointed by this situation, reports the researcher.
Change needed at all levels
What, therefore, are the central factors that influence the non-commercial transfer of knowledge and stimulate an HEI into becoming active? There are many indications that different influencing factors interact in complex fashion. Although international discourse and individual pioneers do play a role, the essential aspects are to be found at the levels of the immediate context, the organization and the individual. According to Verena Radinger-Peer, all levels must work together in order to become a player in sustainable regional development. However, there is currently a long catalogue of shortcomings in terms of regional engagement across all case studies and regions: the weaknesses range from a lack of incentives for academic careers to the absence of priorities in funding programmes and unfavourable values and norms in the various disciplines, as well as HEI regulations that fail to address specific core issues and tasks. Incentives such as those offered by an HEI in Kaiserslautern are rare. “There they give you the possibility of reducing the number of hours spent teaching if you are involved in a regional strategy/development process,” notes Radinger-Peer.
Upgrading follows responsibility
Although it often seems today as though HEIs were involved in their region as a matter of course – at the Johannes Kepler University Linz, for example, several departments with a specific focus on the topic of environment and sustainability have been established since the 1990s – this does not mean that the HEI is necessarily the sole driving force behind it. “The Linz University Fund is a unique feature in Austria. It conditions the commitment of the City of Linz and the Province of Upper Austria and has paved the way for strong political agenda-setting in matters of university development,” explains Radinger-Peer. While it is often policy makers who determine the direction in which regional sustainability is to go, the international research community can also play a role.
It is a fact that the HEIs in the study all tend to be reactive rather than proactive in their region. According to Radinger-Peer, even organizational units set up specifically for this purpose often lead to “the responsibility for regional commitment just being unloaded on to them”. At any rate, the “third mission” requires a holistic approach as well as similar goals and values on both sides. There is still a long way to go before regional commitment becomes a matter of course at HEIs. First research results are at least bringing it out of the shadows and into the limelight.
The recipient of multiple awards, Verena Radinger-Peer is a regional researcher with a focus on regional development at the Institute for Sustainable Economic Development at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. She will continue her research on the cooperation between HEIs and their region until mid-2021 under a Hertha Firnberg grant from the Austrian Science Fund FWF.