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European UBC Stakeholders Call for More Strategic and Structural Linkages to Foster Regional Innovation

The thematic University-Business Forum ‘University-Business Cooperation: A Partnership for Modernisation and Growth’ took place 22- 23 February 2018 in the National Palace of Culture, Sofia. Organized by European Commission in collaboration with the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science, and the Bulgarian Employers organization, the event brought together more than 300 representatives from European universities and industries, as well as public authorities, to exchange knowledge, share good practices of collaboration, and more, discuss how to establish and strengthen the links among these actors to support regional innovation and smart growth.

“Status-quo is not an option”

In his opening speech, Jens Nymand-Christensen of EC DG EAC has emphasized the necessity of more universities building strategic partnerships and networks to create joint value, and strengthen the European identity in education. Such collaborations, however, were warned to be short lived, if they develop to be “elitist, top-down, and exclusive”. Referring to the Maltese experience with the severe impact of the economic crisis, Evarist Bartolo, Minister for Education and Employment underlined the importance of skills and network development, whilst not losing vision on ethical considerations. He stated education and skills gaps between Europe and the developing economies in continents like Africa should be reduced, highlighting the potential role of European universities in facilitating such efforts.

The three breakout sessions focusing on the themes of leadership management, regional innovation and entrepreneurship education each hosted a mixed profile of experts, policy makers, local/ regional representatives, academics, directors, and entrepreneurs who led lively discussions among participants, as well as preparing the ground for critical questions to be raised for potential future directions, that are yet to be answered.

From “bench-marking” to “bench-learning”

Regional innovation session gave voice to a number of societal stakeholders from across Europe, with their complementary RIS3 development experiences. Quadruple Helix model of regional collaboration between university, business, public administration and citizens was proposed as the sole pathway to overcome skills mismatches, and in the long term to ensure sustainable and inclusive growth. Alin-Adrian Nica of European Committee of the Regions has pointed out the RIS3 development support the universities can provide, by generating evidence-based strategies. The discrepancies among European regions are particularly more visible with the rural/ peripheral regions that suffer from brain drain caused by low investments and low innovation levels. Romanian experience in that sense sets a good practice example where smart specialization has led to the development of an ICT and digitalization based innovation ecosystem in the country. Adding to the discussion with the role of universities, Frédéric Pinna, the Director of DEV’UP Centre Val de Loire pointed out the quality human capital from universities is the key success factor for RIS3 development and implementation. Yet, it was concluded there exists challenges to realize this, which includes funding concerns of universities, isolated and traditional teaching practices, silo thinking and lack of influence of regional governments on the working systems of universities. Finally, the questions addressed to speakers showed the concerns of regional actors regarding lack of tools or roadmaps that could support them with RIS3 development in their contexts.

The State of the University-Business Cooperation in Europe: main findings

The second day of the event continued with discussions on the conclusions drawn from the parallel sessions, panels, and keynote speeches including the results from the study State of University Business Cooperation in Europe presented by Prof. Dr. Todd Davey of S2BMRC, with a specific focus given to the Bulgarian context. The presentation drew interest among the EC Bulgarian representation, academics, and business representatives in attendance, with the results revealing major barriers (bureaucracy, funding), motivations and facilitators (R&D facilities, putting research in practice), and following recommendations on how to improve the status of UBC in Bulgaria.

Need for more bridges

During these two days the UBC community has expressed interest in deeper and further collaboration with their respective stakeholders to advance regional innovation, supported by multilevel governance, long-term vision, leadership, and, by strategic and structural linkages. With ‘breaking the silos’ reappearing in the statements of participants as one of the fundamental goals to enable collaboration, the need for national and European funding towards bridging individuals, platforms, or initiatives has become clearer. It has also once become evident that we need to alter our hiring strategies and the incentives for our staff if we want to foster a greater extent of UBC.

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