Insights from our partners Universities as drivers of the new social change

Liquid with shades of green.

The past two years have exemplified the new social change facing societies at large. The apparent transformations in the climate, the growth of technologies and sciences, increasing urbanization, globalization and increased mobility have met the global pandemic and now even a global security threat. These developments, and especially their interconnectedness, complexity and the universal scale, call for novel ways of how social change should be understood and addressed. They call us to rethink how societies function and how threats should be mitigated and turned into opportunities. The key role in that process of social reconsideration and reconfiguration have universities and research institutions. This article elaborates on the novel social framework for the higher education institutions (HEIs) that is built upon the notion of an engaged university.


The engaged university

The engaged university has a responsive and developmental role in meeting the needs of society and contributing to economic development in the region it operates (Davey 2017). As such, the engaged university is oriented towards a regionally connected execution of the university’s third mission, with focus on forms of collaboration involving teaching and research, with academic entrepreneurship as a key element (Davey 2017). Engaged universities act as hubs of networks of constant knowledge exchange between local, regional and international actors.


Ecosystem embeddedness

Universities and other HEIs that are capable to generate significant social and economic impact from their educational and research activities are an essential part of business and sociopolitical networks in their local community and region. This means that such HEIs not only offer educational opportunities for new generations, but rather create knowledge that drives the development of the region by meeting needs and interests of diverse stakeholders. Their educational programs correspond to the existing and anticipated economic demands for human, financial and material resources and generate knowledge production processes through collaborative learning and research endeavors. As such, an engaged university is constantly learning about and from its wider environment.


Open institutions

The fact that engaged universities are strongly interconnected with their regional socioeconomic ecosystem brings us to the next feature of HEIs that act as agents of new social change: their institutional setup is open and adaptive. Precisely the collaborative aspect of the knowledge production process is based on institutional policies and rules that favor academic entrepreneurship, joint research projects, experimentation, pilots, start-ups, etc. Such policies are translated into organizational culture and values that guide hiring and career development processes.


Collaborative learning

Beyond research and valorization, the engaged universities support collaborative and empirical learning processes for its students and staff. By creating diverse and embodied learning opportunities, engaged universities provide real-life educational settings where teachers take up roles of experienced mentors that guide students in discovery processes rather than reiterate information. Such approach requires a critical approach towards industrial and social environments, trends and to the knowledge itself.


The way forward

How to foster HEI transition towards an engaged institution? The European Commission report from 2017 highlights the following strategic approaches in fostering university-business cooperation and HEI engagement (European Commission, 2018):

  • Finance project consortiums that extend their cooperation activities beyond research into education, valorisation and management cooperation.
  • Provide funding for longer term cooperation initiatives, which allows the stability for expertise to develop and relationships to mature.
  • Promote the benefits of UBC through guides, videos, roadmaps, e-courses, forums and workshops as well as media articles.
  • Create more opportunities for cooperation with employers in education including more practical programmes, both within and cross-faculty.
  • Create small ‘packaged’ opportunities to collaborate e.g. master-thesis supervision, student ‘consulting’ project with business, a joint paper around a common area of expertise, etc.
  • Provide support to the creation of new curricula, to redesign existing curricula or undertake ongoing modernisation of curricula at HEIs.
  • Develop improved employment and recruitment pathways from higher education to employers.
  • Embrace the HEIs role in providing entrepreneurship education, creating entrepreneurial ventures and facilitating a regional entrepreneurship ecosystem


Interfunctional linkages for structural transformation

The key takeaway from the research on engaged universities is that such institutions foster collaborative processes in research, education, valorization and management. Moreover, these roles of universities are strongly interlinked for mapping structural socioeconomic realities and constant adjustments to novel developments.

The aforementioned European Commission report highlights the following benefits from a collaborative approach:

  • The university-business cooperation (UBC) in education offers potential for better aligning curricula and the skills of graduates with the labour market, improving employment pathways for students, and recruitment for employers as well as lifelong learning programmes for business;
  • For research, HEIs offer the greatest benefit to business as a partner for innovation with a longer-term horizon as well as shorter term problem solving. Conversely, business offers HEIs insights, opportunities, data for high quality research and the ability to bring research into practice and create impact;
  • Through valorisation, HEIs become part of a regional innovation system acting as a source of next generation innovations, high tech new companies and entrepreneurial talent for the value chains of industry;
  • Cooperation in management provides possibilities for improved regional and institutional governance, the sharing of facilities, equipment and other resources to better leverage strategic assets.




Davey T., 2017. Converting university knowledge into value: How conceptual frameworks contribute to the understanding of the third mission role of European universities. International Journal of Technology Transfer and Commercialisation 15 (1), 65 – 96.

Demir, E and Collins, M.H., 2022. The Engagement Readiness Monitor Investigation Report. The Engagement Readiness Monitor project.

European Commission, Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, Meerman, A., Galan Muros, V., Davey, T., et al., 2018. The state of university-business cooperation in Europe: final report, EC Publications Office.



Blog editors: Fleur Schellekens (UIIN) and Alexandra Zinovyeva (UIIN) 

Header photo by Bia Andrade on Unsplash











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