Guest blogger: Tensions and contradictions surrounding universities’ regional missions

Romulo Pinheiro

Romulo Pinheiro

This post is written by Romulo Pinhero who has recently submitted his PhD dissertation at the Faculty of Education in University of Oslo. He is currently a senior researcher at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Regional Innovation Strategies, in Agder, Norway, and is an assistant professor at University of Oslo where he works with the Hedda Master programme on higher education. His PhD dissertation focuses on the relationship between higher education and regional development, and he is also one of the authors for an upcoming book on the topic. In this post he will share some of the conceptual underpinnings of the upcoming book. 

Universities are increasingly expected to play a role in socio-economic development, both at the national and local levels. This is particularly the case when it comes to those institutions located within regions facing a number of inter-related challenges like poverty, crime, unemployment, industrial decline, etc.

The literature on the role of universities in development can be characterized around three types of studies: impact studies, focusing on the measurable, often econometric effects (inputs and output factors) accrued to the presence of the university in a given locality; policy studies, shedding light on the mechanisms aiding universities’ role in regional development; and in-depth case stories, pinpointing the contextual circumstances (internal arrangements, local partnerships, incentive systems, etc.) underpinning regional engagement by universities.

In spite of increasing interest in the topic, both by policy making and academic communities alike, little attention has been paid to the “real” dilemmas universities and academics face while attempting to engage with their regional surroundings.

One set of dilemmas pertain to the fact that universities are seen as rather distinct organizations and relatively autonomous institutions. For example, their structural arrangements are loosely-coupled, their internal goals are ill defined, their technologies (teaching and research) are complex to grasp, and outcomes (learning and knowledge) are rather difficult to predict with some degree of accuracy.

In a forthcoming book, part of Routledge’s International Studies of Higher Education series, myself and two other colleagues propose a novel framework for assessing the “black-box” associated with ongoing attempts at institutionalizing universities’ regional missions. Our point of departure is the adoption of a conceptual model based on five distinct but nonetheless interrelated types of ambiguities characterizing the modern university, as shown on the image.

On the basis of new empirical evidence from a vast number of international case studies, from Africa to Asia to South America to Europe, we propose a new way for conceiving of the relationship between internal (university) and external (region) dynamics likely to affect the institutionalization of the third mission of regional development.

The successful accomplishment and future sustainability of universities’ regional missions, we argue, are intrinsically dependent on the degree of alignment between internal and external activities.

More specifically, we shed light on four types of critical factors acting as enablers and/or constrainers of institutionalization processes, namely:

  •  Primary activities (Nature, scope & integration); e.g. the extent to which teaching, research and third-stream (service, outreach, innovation, etc.) activities are aligned with external expectations and the needs (immediate as well as future) of various regional actors and that of the region as a whole.
  • Strategic objectives and aspirations; the degree to which university objectives (central and unit levels) and future ambitions are aligned with regional development plans and the interests and agendas of various regional constituencies across public and private sectors;
  • Normative and cultural-cognitive dimensions; referring to the levels of dissonance (“gap”) between the values, norms, roles and identities of academic audiences across the heartland and that of external actors within the region;
  • Resource and incentive systems; i.e. the degree of support by governmental agencies and universities’ steering cores towards active engagement with activities (core/peripheral levels) directly contributing to regional development.

Our model assumes the potential for a synergistic effect between the above mentioned factors and the inner dynamics of both the university and the region, hence, contributing (to an extent) to the resolution of pending tensions associated with the ambiguity inherent to the “black-boxes” of the university and the region alike.

Going forward, we urge higher education and regional science scholars to move beyond simplistic and instrumental accounts of the role of universities in regional development. Instead, we call for a renewed focus on the dynamic interplay between the various internal elements (ambiguities) characterizing universities, on the one hand, and between these and regional structures, actors and macro-level dynamics, on the other.

Finally, we contend that social scientists working in/around the topic should pay close attention to intricacies at the level of the various sub-units (academic heartland) as well as the inter-related processes of environmental change and institutional response, strategic or otherwise.

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Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank co-editors Dr. Paul Benneworth (CHEPS, Twente) and Professor Glen A. Jones (OISE, Toronto) as well as series editor Emeritus Professor Ted Tapper (Sussex, UK) for their critical contributions throughout the entire project.

The book Universities and Regional Development: A critical assessment of tensions and contradictions by Pinheiro, R., Benneworth, P. and Jones,G. will be published in 2012 in the Routlege International Studies of Higher Education series.