Every single higher education institution (HEI) boasts of the importance it places on the development of the region
in which it is located. A quick glance at the Mission Statement of practically any HEI will immediately bring to light the formal recognition that is given to the institution for its contributions to the well-being and progress of the community and beyond through the teaching and research services it provides.
However, as societies have become increasingly engulfed by the maelstrom of globalisation, practically every higher education system in the world has become forced to limit its involvement in regional development to specific economic, scientific and technological development activities. These activities range from the intention of creating closer links with industry to the setting up of impressive science and technology parks.
Not far removed from this is the fact that HEIs are faced with growing pressure to become active agents in the promotion of regional economic development.
This trend was confirmed in a recent study that was conducted in 14 of the world’s regions through the Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education
, IMHE, that is run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The study
, entitled The Contribution of Higher Education Institutions to Regional Development
, analysed the contributions that HEIs made to regions in terms of business innovation, the training of human capital, and social, cultural and environmental development.
If the variations that are due to specific regional contexts and long-established institutional dynamics are taken into consideration, it may generally be observed that there has been an attempt to provide mechanisms at governmental and institutional level that stimulate, among other things, the development of new academic programmes, the setting up of new liaison offices with the business sector, the creation of technology transfer offices, the laying down of regulations on intellectual property and even methods for assessing the impact HEIs have on a region’s economy. The efforts made to streamline syllabuses and study programmes to meet the needs of the job market more efficiently and quickly should also be highlighted.
In this context, it is clear that the close attention HEIs have paid to the role they have taken on as promoters of economic development has given the impression that they are less interested in the other contributions they have made, which are just as important, to the social, cultural and environmental aspects of regional development.
The OECD study shows that HEIs generally carry out an impressive range of activities that go towards promoting the social, cultural and environmental development of their regions. However, it should be highlighted that these activities are often seen as marginal or incidental to the fundamental tasks of universities. A clear example of this is that there is usually no general consensus on the meaning, definition or scope of this concept, as opposed to research and teaching activities. Although some HEIs make reference to a third basic task known as “Public Service”, others define this role as “Extension” or “Community Service” or even “Cultural Dissemination”. The very fact that these functions are set to one side—both in terms of documentation and institutional administrative structures—contributes to the false idea that these activities have nothing whatsoever to do with teaching and research.
The specific regional reports that formed part of the OECD study made reference to a number of specific successful practices
that various HEIs had started to run that managed to break the vicious circle of institutional marginalisation.
This is the case of
community social service programmes that the University of Monterrey (UDEM)
, the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí (UASLP)
and La Salle University (ULSA)
in Mexico have
set up. The students on these programmes devote a minimum of 480 hours to social service programmes that, while directly benefiting the community, are also clearly linked with the teaching-learning process. The approach adopted by Aalborg University
is also worthy of mention. Half of this university’s courses consist of projects—between 2000 and 3000 per academic cycle—which are devoted to solving problems in which the students work in teams to overcome problems that have been defined in cooperation with businesses, civil society organisations and governments. Another example is that of Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences
, where 800 unemployed people have been reinstated on the labour market through educational training and retraining programmes. One more case that stands out is that of the North East of England
, where five higher educations institutions in the region use sports programmes to attract students from deprived backgrounds, boost their confidence and provide them with social cohesion skills.
It is true to say that HEIs have increased their contributions to regional development and may continue to do so. It is likewise true that such contributions cannot, nor should not, be restricted to economic development, but should include social, cultural and environmental considerations. If we look beyond HEIs, this means, amongst other things, considering the need to develop more coherent actions between institutions and between them and various organisations of civil society, companies and governmental entities, which should translate into suitable incentives, indicators and the monitoring of results. Furthermore, if we examine the internal running of HEIs, it is clear that there is an urgent need for change in the institutional set-up so that academic excellence, research and greater participation in regional development are valued as complementary rather than exclusive. There is proof that this is not only possible, but imperative.