Region to University Interaction

Universities, even those with high international profiles, have a significant impact on the local regions in which they are located while the regions in turn provide fertile environments for the universities. There appears to be something of an upward causal spiral in these interrelationships. Regions considered excellent in terms of growth in regional products and labor productivity and that are highly attractive destinations for new businesses and for bright young people are generally regions with high quality universities. That is not to say that universities only operate for the benefit of their own localities or regions, and the facts show that current graduates are likely to display levels of mobility that preclude many of them from remaining in the regions in which they graduated. A substantial part of the research on this topic is in the public domain and readily accessible in relevant publications. In spite of this, high educational and academic quality universities turn out to be part of strong regions. Research facilities of private industries seek locations in close proximity to those of good universities. Princeton in USA and Louvain in Belgium provide clear examples in this regard. The regions benefit as high quality universities are attractive as sources of competent labor and as sources of inspiration in open networks, while the universities benefit as it is easier for them to attract staff and research grants in booming regions than it is for universities in other economically less-advantaged locations.

Change towards excellence for universities then is a process in which the regions and the universities have to both partake in regional strategic planning. It concerns locating, identifying, and strengthening the threads of the upward spiral, creating and working in partnerships. Formal regional partnerships, between local governments, local industries, and universities, are intrinsic to any strategy for change. Strategic options of universities are reinforced by, or may be altered according to and in alignment with, regional agreements.

Region-university interaction existed in the Netherlands in the stage of the elite universities. One of my Alma Maters, the Technical University of Delft, had been founded in part as support for the development of major Netherlands-based industries such as Shell, Philips, AKZO, and Unilever and had a tremendous impact on the region. Yet, by 1980 the university's formal and practical ties with the region and the regional government had ceased and they operated and existed as separate entities with minimal contact. From the 1960s to the 1990s new universities were established throughout Europe with low levels of formal linkage to the regions in which they were located.

It was only in the past 10–20 years that the awareness grew that change towards excellence for universities could be reinforced by strong cooperation with the regions in which universities are located, and that regions for their part came to realize the tremendous capital that universities represented for their development.

Developing strong regional cooperation is a time-consuming and lengthy process. It is also a process with its ups and downs. Regional governments change with the political cycle and the new guard may have different notions than their predecessors. However, there are numerous examples of successful cooperation between universities and the regions, such as in the cases of Louvain or Princeton (previously mentioned), and Warwick (UK) and Copenhagen (Denmark).

International Partnerships with Other Universities

Most universities have extensive links with other universities in education and research. In education there are substantial levels of student exchange, sometimes as features of joint degree programs. In research, individual researchers or research groups often collaborate in joint programs or on an informal basis. These partnerships can be part of a strategic line of focus. They can be left to individual departments or degree courses or they can be decentralized under a central general framework, as is, for example, the case in Cambridge. In this case, the International Strategy Office helps coordinate and facilitate agreements between individual departments/schools/colleges and international partners under a protocol governing all such international agreements.

There were times when a university president might have informed visitors of the 300 or more signed memoranda of understanding with other universities, while being at a loss and unable to demonstrate how they actually contributed to the university's quality of research and teaching. This has changed as nowadays universities have highly selective cooperation agreements with other universities which stipulate how exactly joint degrees or joint research projects are conducted and identify their structural frameworks in terms of finance and accountability.

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