Voices from Experts Voices from Experts: Jan Axelsson
Through engaging with external partners, HEIs can increase their meaningful contributions to their cities, regions, and nations. However, we still lack depth and understanding of the means and factors that enable external engagement. During the first half of 2021, the Engagement Readiness Monitor Project partners have talked to many experts to gain an in-depth understanding of HEIs’ engagement with business and their readiness to cooperate in various engagement activities. In conversation with the project partners, Jan Axelsson, Director of Collaboration at Linköping University, offered his insights on “engagement readiness” and contributed his valuable knowledge on the topic.
Jan is the Director of Collaboration at Linköping University and has worked in numerous roles and in different organisational forms, both within and outside of the university. He has worked to strengthen the processes of collaboration, innovation and utilization within the university and the region of Östergötland, among other things, to increase the professionalism of these processes. Jan is motivated by his drive and passion for the value-building interaction between academia and society and has built up a comprehensive network of contacts. Having carried out most of his research in the business sector, he has also been able to continually apply his newfound knowledge through his work in consultancy.
Image: Jan Axelsson
What makes a university ready to engage?
According to Jan, a university that is ready to engage has a culture open to engaging, especially with the challenges faced by society. Linköping University conducts its activities under three pillars: research, education, and valorisation. The University has had a culture of cooperation for some time and, as a relatively new institution, has been engaged with the actors surrounding it from early on. Furthermore, the University is focusing more on impact that is created through long- and short-term engagement, rather than focussing on creating financial impact. Government policies in Sweden stating that universities should engage in research and education for the benefit of society further ensured that th University fosters a culture of engagement.
“Only once a university can collaborate internally, is it possible for a university to collaborate externally”
In general, to increase readiness for engagement, Jan explains a university should have relationships with the surrounding society, be that industry or other stakeholders, and should be willing to enter into dialogue with societal stakeholders. To be ready to engage, the university should also understand the challenges that need to be faced by the society in which the university finds itself. Furthermore, only once a university can collaborate internally, is it possible for a university to collaborate externally. Thus, the university needs to have the ability to internally co-ordinate research and education and create interdisciplinary research. This is especially important because challenges facing society are not of a single discipline, and thus universities also require research centres and education that can focus on this variety of disciplines.
What makes an academic ready to engage?
According to Jan, a researcher must want to find causes to collaborate. An academic ready to collaborate will have an open mind towards engagement, in terms of cooperation, co-learning, and co-creation. To Jan’s experience, the internal systems of academic merit and research funding in collaboration are both a large motivation to collaborate. At Linköping University for instance, engagement is counted within its internal system of merit and academics, where researchers or teachers are evaluated on three points: research, education, and the impact of their collaboration/co-creation. Thus, there are incentives for engagement both in terms of career progression and financial benefit. Besides this merit system, engagement has a clear connection to successful funding. 60% of Linköping University’s research funding is from external, co-creational research projects. Linköping University also fosters a mentality among researchers and their communities, that encourages working and learning together, as well as creating with others to bring knowledge forward.
How to monitor engagement activities?
Linköping University uses a simple system which measures key performance indicators (KPIs) on an institutional level, including three overall KPIs that measure engagement:
- Ability to attract external funding – this is the overall measure of the activity.
- Mobility between academia and social stakeholders – for example how many external stakeholders are employed at Linköping University and how many academic staff are employed externally.
- Ability of students to find employment after their studies – this indicates how relevant the education at Linköping University is to society and industry.
In addition, impact case studies are reviewed by national agencies that analyse the impact of engagement activities. The different departments, education programs and research environments at the University are required to provide impact case studies on a regular basis, to allow for a more qualitative analysis of the engagement activities compared to the more quantitative nature of the KPIs. A number of impact case studies have been published on the University’s website.
A final word on readiness
From the information presented, it is clear that having a culture conducive to engagement is an important precursor for engagement success for universities. Furthermore, incentivising academic staff through university merit systems that include engagement in their assessments for career progression can further demonstrate the value that engagement activities hold at the institution. In terms of monitoring and evaluation, the use of case studies of impact and KPIs in conjunction allow for a broad range of measurement and are valuable in determining the extent of engagement with businesses and other societal actors.
Authored by Catherine Hayward, Junior Project Officer at UIIN.
Edited by Fleur Schellekens, Junior Research Officer at UIIN.
Blog editors: Alexandra Zinovyeva (UIIN) and Fleur Schellekens (UIIN)