Strategy and Incentives for Interaction

The success of universities in the field of the third mission is very much dependent on the active role of university strategies and leadership. As shown above, universities may engage in a large variety of third mission activities, and excellent performance in this area necessitates strategic choices. The third mission is not as self-evident as teaching and research on the academic agenda and because of this, if concerted and directed effort from the leadership is lacking, then it is at risk of being neglected.

In part the third mission is promoted directly by the networking activities of universities' leaders, as often only leaders are in positions such that it enables them to create ties to other large and influential organizations. Still more important though, is the creation of a fertile and productive academic and educational atmosphere throughout universities. Successful partnerships with societies in which universities are located must involve high proportions of university staff and take place in many forms on many levels. This happens only if there are clear and persistent messages from leadership stressing the importance of societal interaction.

As the performance of the third mission is a value-based activity, this only further enhances the role of the leadership. The social responsibility of universities must go hand in hand with the universities' values, and the values of an organization have no worth if the leadership is not expressly and visibly committed to them.

The third task must be appropriately addressed in universities' strategies, as is usually the case. Normally the mission and vision statements already contain references to universities' values in relation to their surrounding societies. For example, in its Strategic Plan 2013-2016 (as in previous plans) the University of Helsinki commits itself as a part of its vision, to promote “the wellbeing of humanity and a just society” [9].

A good strategy should not only set the direction of development. It should also provide tools for making strategic choices and prioritizations. In the complex field of the third mission, such strategic decision-making is important if one aspires to achieve excellence in the service of society and mankind.

Many questions have to be addressed in such a strategy. First and foremost, a good strategy should be able to operationalize the definition of the third mission, in order to provide a basis for discussing, assessing, and promoting the relevant activities. The understanding of the third mission in its relationship to the primary tasks of teaching and research should be defined. Rather than being an independent task, the third mission can be viewed as a perspective on the primary tasks, driven by a commitment by universities to promote important social values.

The strategy should be based on the realization that universities have different roles to play in the interaction ecosystem. Most universities have, and should have, international, national, and regional interaction. However, the proportional balance of these elements varies according to the universities' roles. It is an important question to ask, “To what extent should universities focus on interaction on each level?” Local universities can have a central role in supporting the well-being of their region, while others more clearly play a national role. In some ways, all universities also work for the benefit of mankind in general. Universities that aspire to be placed within the elite, among the world-class universities, should expressly and actively expand their societal impact beyond the confines of their own society's borders.

Education is, for example, an important tool for aiding development, and can be offered in cooperation with various organizations and agents in this area. The development of MOOCs was, at least initially, seen as a service to an international society that was eager to learn. Such measures cannot, however, flourish without express strategic choices on the part of universities to serve mankind in this way.

When leading the development of third mission activities at universities, other crucial questions should also be addressed. Which fields of interaction are regarded as the most important for universities and how should activities in these areas be supported? Is it possible and desirable to build strategic partnerships to particular societal actors to promote third mission activities?

Finally, strategic leadership requires decisions about the incentives to promote the fulfillment of the strategic choices. How can departments and individual employees who perform well be recognized and supported? As the indicators reflecting the third mission are not able to provide a comprehensive picture of the complex field that would appear balanced in relation to the opportunities of various disciplines, a purely indicator-based remuneration strategy is not recommendable. As was noted above, in addition to possible incentives based on indicators, universities also need more comprehensive qualitative assessments of their third mission activities, which also can be used for informing decisions concerning remuneration.

In addition to university incentives, the research funding market also increasingly incentivizes societal interaction of university research. Many funding agencies favor projects and themes in which both universities and societal actors participate. In international university discourse, a key concept with regard to the service of mankind is the concept of grand challenges. Much discussion on the role of universities has related their particular importance to their ability to contribute to solving challenges, such as climate change, world peace, and poverty among other things. Many research funders also, notably the EU Horizon 2020 program, have started to focus their activities on such grand challenges and much of international outreach will certainly be organized under this heading in years to come. This is dealt with in more detail in the chapter dealing with innovation and knowledge economy.

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