Bridging the innovation capacity gap for universities

An unparalleled survey looks at innovation at universities across Europe. EUA expert Stephane Berghmans breaks down the findings, explaining what must be done to boost capacity and build vibrant innovation ecosystems.

Innovation is a critical priority for universities. This is the first important lesson from the first-ever Europe-wide survey on universities and innovation. Published recently by the European University Association (EUA), the findings reveal that the vast majority of universities have a strategy that reflects their innovation agenda, and it is strongly embedded in far-reaching institutional goals. The survey also shows that universities are very committed to achieving the transition to a sustainable and digitally connected society. Moreover, they are confident that Europe’s research and innovation capabilities will allow it to achieve a sustainable and green transition, and a leadership position in the digital transition. But to fulfil the European Union’s ambitions in innovation and its targets for the green and digital transitions, innovation ecosystems need to be further strengthened, with universities at the centre as engines of regional innovation.

A unique survey

The context has undeniably changed for universities and all other actors of the innovation ecosystem. As set out in EUA’s recent vision of universities without walls for 2030, the climate crisis and sustainability more broadly are urgent issues. Technological developments and especially the digital transition are changing lives and disrupting labour markets, which will also impact the way universities and their partners work. The Covid-19 pandemic has further accelerated change, leading to a rapid expansion in digital provision, and of research and innovation capacities to solve major societal challenges. In this changing context, and given the growing importance of innovation at universities, EUA decided in 2021 to conduct a survey with the aim of building the first large-scale picture of innovation at universities in Europe. The survey gathers input from 166 institutions from 28 European countries. This unique body of evidence has allowed the Association develop recommendations for universities, policy makers and funding agencies on how to further enhance the contribution of universities to innovation ecosystems.

To fully capitalise on universities’ contributions, enhancing their innovation capacity will be the key. To do this, three key resources would definitely help close the gap between universities’ innovation strategy and their capacity: first, qualified staff to fulfil all university missions and incentives to increase staff motivation to engage in innovation; second, investments to support both innovation directly, as well as long-term oriented research, including curiosity-driven research as one of the fundamental engines of innovation; and third, spaces where researchers and students from different disciplines, and other actors of the innovation ecosystem can engage in a co-creation process.

Broadening academic skills

While the need for sustainable investments might not come as a surprise as EUA too often needs to make such a call, the two other key resources might beg for further clarifications. On staff, for example, the recommendations call for European, national and regional policy makers to support universities in reforming their academic career assessment approaches. The aim is to properly recognise a wide range of academic staff skills and contributions beyond what they publish in scientific journals. This, of course, would need to include their innovation activities. And while universities that do incentivise staff innovation activities do it mostly through commercialisation processes or for setting up a company, universities need to consider staff innovation in a broader sense. It needs to include the economic dimension, as well as the social, cultural, ethical and environmental impacts. But this not just for policy makers as universities too need to play a role. The Association is calling for universities themselves to provide incentives, rewards and support mechanisms for academic staff innovation activities. EUA already included in its strategy the commitment to identify and share good practices in shaping academic careers, and to celebrate within our institutions a parity of esteem between learning and teaching, research and innovation. Against this backdrop, and to act upon this new recommendation, EUA will widen its portfolio of activities from research assessment to academic assessment and by taking a comprehensive and holistic approach to academic assessment starting in 2022.

Co-creation spaces

On spaces, another key finding from the survey points to universities collaborating to a higher extent with public sector institutions, other universities, and research organisations, but to a lesser extent with companies and even less with civil society organisations. This was the basis for a central recommendation around co-creation spaces requesting that policy makers support universities in their interactions with companies of all sizes, and more generally all actors of the innovation ecosystem. Support mechanisms should more specifically target universities with lower innovation capacity. A more in-depth correlation analysis of the results showed, indeed, that among responding universities, those that consider innovation as an essential component of their strategy and have higher capacity, also collaborate to a larger extent with companies. Support measures could aim at reducing the regulatory burden, allow for more skills development, or offer networking opportunities, funding, incentives and advice.

The European landscape has evolved greatly in recent years and it has led many universities to put their missions in education, research, innovation and culture into the service of society. More than ever, universities are producing and will need to produce knowledge for new technological and social innovations, but will also directly develop societally impactful innovative solutions.

Addressing the capacity gap

These new solutions are impacting our societies and universities, again, ensure that such impacts are properly studied and evaluated. Beyond providing innovative green and digital solutions, universities also promote entrepreneurship and contribute by developing the next generation of innovators, so they are equipped for the changing labour markets. In this changing innovation environment, European universities play a central role in developing and fostering innovation ecosystems. The EUA survey shows that for universities to continue to be engines of innovation in these ecosystems, the gap between their strategic commitment to innovation and their innovation capacity needs to be closed. This will happen if policy makers support universities to attract and develop human talents, to ensure sustainable investments in research and innovation, and to build spaces where universities can co-create with all actors from the innovation ecosystems.

This article was first published by University World News on 20 November 2021.


“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Stephane Berghmans

Stephane Berghmans is Director of Research and Innovation at EUA.



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