EU Policy Context

Starting point: Building innovation capacity

Over and above the traditional roles that Higher Educations Institutions (HEIs) play in education and research, there has recently been a shift in paradigm, with HEIs reflecting on ways how they can improve their entrepreneurial and innovation capacities and how they can better connect with their local ecosystems, such as with enterprises and public authorities. Their aim is to provide new and emerging skills with a view to boosting jobs and sustainable growth for their regions but also to solving regional challenges and broader societal challenges such as climate change. Institutions, teachers and students are therefore becoming part of the transformative changes that they would like to see happening in the world.

With this in mind, HEIs have been changing their DNA for some time now, broadening their more traditional role and connecting more dynamically with the world around them. The so-called Smart Specialisation Strategies have helped them connect to the evolving local innovation ecosystems around them. In this way, they can better harness human capital in order to provide the emerging skills that are needed to solve current and future societal challenges and work towards the Green and Digital transition.

We continue to foster transformation in HEIs so that they can become more innovative and entrepreneurial. We encourage HEIs to use the HEInnovate self-reflection platform as an initial step. It will help them to understand their own internal dynamics better and to begin to reflect on ways to move ahead and innovate in terms of University-Business Cooperation and the Third Mission.

Connect at the European level: Supporting and sustaining change in HEIs

HEInnovate is embedded in numerous European policy initiatives and EU funding programmes:

The European Strategy for Universities shows how universities can help Europe’s resilience, recovery and future transformation. The European University Alliances, are of particular interest. They show how deep and structural cooperation between HEIs can be a stepping stone to set in motion a transformative process towards innovation. The strategy also includes joint European degrees, the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education and the European Student Card.

There is also the new European Innovation Agenda that was adopted by the Commission in July 2022. It aims to position Europe and its HEIs at the forefront of the new wave of deep tech innovation and start-ups. Deep-tech involves federating knowledge from different scientific disciplines in order to develop and market technological and engineering solutions to the most pressing societal challenges we face today. The new European Innovation Agenda is designed to position Europe as a leading player on the global innovation scene. Europe wants to be the place where the best talents work hand in hand with the best companies; a place where deep tech innovation thrives and creates breakthrough innovative solutions that inspire the world.

The European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT) and its Knowledge and Innovation Communities | EIT ( (KICs) also foster cooperation between universities and businesses to create innovative new courses. The current EIT HEI Initiative is there to help HEIs to build the capacity to teach innovation and entrepreneurship. In addition, the Deep tech Talent Initiative, one of the actions of the new European Innovation Agenda implemented by the EIT, intends to train one million deep tech talents by 2025. This can be an interesting initiative for HEIs looking to transform themselves to become more innovative and entrepreneurial.

HEIs play a multiphase role in the development of the competences of individuals that are needed to drive deep-tech innovation and to successfully navigate the green and digital twin transition. Through partnerships between schools and higher education institutions, these competences are developed at foundational levels. Advanced levels of innovation competences are becoming part of mainstream higher education, and upskilling and reskilling offered by higher education develop these competences at professional levels. The EIPC, the Education and Innovation Practice Community, brings these elements together. It is a joint initiative of the European Commission and the OECD and one of the actions of the new European Innovation Agenda. EIPC brings together peers from policy and practice to innovate in education.

The Commission’s strategy for skills is contained in the European Skills Agenda that is organised around 12 actions. It aims to ensure that Europe will have the necessary skills for the green and digital transitions as well as to boost employability and entrepreneurship. It focuses amongst other things on strengthening skills intelligence, EU support for national upskilling actions, increasing the number of STEM graduates and boosting micro-credentials. The Pact for Skills, one of the flagship actions of the European Skills Agenda, also aims to boost the quality of Vocational Education and Training. The Centres of VET Excellence, one of the actions of the Erasmus+ programme, are there to drive this process, with greater internationalisation and better links with the labour market and work-based learning to ensure the appropriate skills provision.

There are other funding opportunities under Erasmus+ that are available to HEIs looking to enhance their innovation and entrepreneurship capacities, promote their cooperation with business and build upon their third mission. In addition to the European University Alliances, and creating pathways at post-secondary and tertiary level through the Centres for VETExcellence, there are the Alliances for Innovation. These seek to enhance university, business and VET cooperation to design new education and training courses, provide new and emerging skills sectorally or cross-sectorally and enhance entrepreneurship. The Alliances for Innovation can also be geared towards the New European Bauhaus (NEB) movement. The NEB aims to stimulate cooperation between science, technology, art, and culture for creative and interdisciplinary initiatives to design future ways of living and bring the Green Deal to living places.

Embracing digital transformation

Europe’s Digital Strategy and the Digital Education Action Plan (DEAP) are also vital elements in assuring that the necessary digital enhancements in teaching take place, as well as the provision of the digital skills that will be required across the board in Europe’s future economic life.

The DEAP has two strategic priorities. Firstly to foster the development of high-performing digital education systems and secondly to enhance digital skills and competences for the Digital Transformation. The European Digital Education Hub has been set up. It creates networks of national advisory services on digital education and offers a whole host of other services such as sharing best practices and supporting cross-sector collaboration.

Next steps

We wish HEIs luck as they embark on a long voyage with this HEInnovate self-assessment. The journey may be a long one, in the quest to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship capacities, but it will be a rewarding one for institutions, professors and the students alike who will ultimately benefit from this process. And the benefits will not only be for themselves, but also contribute to confronting the challenges that we face daily in an ever-more complicated world whose future we all want to shape for the better.