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At what point are universities ready to engage in strategic partnerships with business? How does one measure universities’ readiness to co-operate in engagement activities and guide it towards success? In this piece, we examine these questions and offer the different dimensions of readiness garnered from the results of a large-scale research & development project, led by UIIN.
To gain a deeper understanding of universities’ abilities to engage in university-industry collaboration, extensive research was conducted on what is required to ensure a university is ready to collaborate and engage. The insights gained allowed for the development of different tools and frameworks to guide universities’ attempts to collaborate with industry. An example of this is the design of the Engagement Readiness Framework which outlines indicators to measure universities’ engagement readiness. The framework serves as the basis for development of the Engagement Readiness Self-Assessment Tool which evaluates, at an institutional level, how ready a university is to engage with industry. The results of this self-assessment signify areas of improvement for the university in their collaboration practices across the following six dimensions.
1. Internal awareness / knowledge of external engagement
This dimension refers to awareness and knowledge of an institution’s academic and professional staff with regards to the resources and support available at the institution, as well as drivers and barriers affecting external engagement.
Awareness of support mechanisms
If researchers and staff are aware of the current external engagement and collaboration activities taking place at the institution, this may serve as motivation to undertake similar initiatives themselves. Having knowledge of accessible support and resources within the university, such as a partnerships office, also reduces the barrier to entry for academics and staff to take the first steps towards external engagement.
Knowledge of barriers and drivers
Moreover, having knowledge of the drivers and barriers of engagement allows university staff to anticipate potential difficulties and focus on driving the collaboration process forward. Awareness of the cultural differences between universities and industry, such as expected timeframes and use of language is one such important example.
2. Staff capabilities and experience with external engagement
Staff must have the ability to engage, thus having skills and experience with external engagement activities is paramount. The capability and experience needs include: understanding that universities have an interest in bringing research into practical use; awareness of the importance of collaboration with business for professional and institutional growth; openness to attending events to learn from others and seek potential partners for joint research; and experience working in industry.
University staff must be aware of the different forms of engagement activities in research and education. The extent to which staff have experience in engagement and collaboration extends to many activities, including joint R&D, contract research, commercialisation, and curriculum co-design and co-delivery.
Taking advantage of support mechanisms
University staff should be able to identify and utilise engagement support structures provided by the institution and be aware of engagement barriers and drivers. Mapping the university’s internal research and educational assets is also a valuable skill.
Working with ‘the other side’
Academics who are ready to co-operate can unite institutional cultures, speaking both ‘academic’ and ‘business’ languages and academics with fluid careers that span both academia and industry, termed ‘boundary spanners’ are similarly more likely to collaborate. Furthermore, university staff exchanges in which staff work at a business, ensure real experience is obtained which they are then able to integrate into their educational activities. These exchanges are key for engagement readiness because they allow relationship building with industry representatives. It is also important to consider the role of the institution, as a whole, to prepare itself for engagement.
3. Awareness and knowledge of external stakeholders
An institution should be aware of its external stakeholders and should cultivate specific capabilities that are focussed on identifying, engaging and managing relationships with them. A university must be able to map external stakeholders and identify potential collaboration partners. Furthermore, management processes should be established at an institutional level to maintain relationships.
4. External engagement culture and attitude to external engagement
Transitioning towards collaborative environments requires a well-developed collaborative culture both institution-wide and on the individual level.
Institutional culture and attitude
The external engagement culture and attitude towards external engagement refers to characteristics within the institution and among academic staff. From the institutional perspective, leadership should have a positive attitude and commitment to engagement and collaboration, supported by an institution-wide documented vision/ mission that values external engagement and collaboration, as well as the presence of role models or “champions” of engagement and collaboration, who can inspire other academics.
Similarly, staff at the institution should have a positive attitude towards engagement and should thus be motivated to undertake such activities.
5. Internal support mechanisms for engagement
There are a variety of different support mechanisms available at an institution for external engagement, ranging from strategies, structures, operational mechanisms and resources.
Strategies for building strategic partnerships need to extend across the institution and hiring policies should prioritise individuals with knowledge and skills that are relevant to external engagement and collaboration and/ or industry experience. In parallel, staff should be motivated through human resource policies that incentivise external engagement, for example, workload reduction, or official recognition of engagement activities.
To further enhance readiness at a university, structures dedicated to external engagement should be present. These include incubators and accelerators, a Vice Chancellor position for external engagement, offices dedicated to external collaboration, and joint research institutes. Moreover, communication channels should disseminate successful collaboration projects. Events and training for collaboration can help staff and partners network with one another.
In terms of the resources required to increase readiness, dedicated funding and support for external engagement and collaboration are crucial. As such, knowledge/ technology/ partnership offices can support financing for engagement and collaboration.
6. External conditions affecting engagement
The final dimension considers the external conditions relevant to engagement. Important factors include the ability to shape the university’s ecosystem, and awareness of external support mechanisms.
Awareness of opportunities in the ecosystem
The university should be well aware of the socioeconomic context of the local environment and innovation policies and funding mechanisms, as well as its own ability to shape its local and regional innovation environment.
Taking advantage of these opportunities
Lastly, external support mechanisms are available that can support university engagement and should be taken advantage of. These include funding, as well as regional and national policies.
It important to note that all these dimensions are present to different extents within an institution. Thus, the Engagement Readiness Self-Assessment is valuable in identifying areas of improvement and serves as a conversation-starter for institutional change.
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 special issue of the UIIN magazine CONNECTED as part of the final output of the Erasmus+ funded Engagement Readiness Monitor Project that developed a toolkit in order to measure and advance engagement between universities and business.
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Catherine Hayward (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN and works on research and development within the topics of entrepreneurial education and valorisation in higher education.