HEInnovate webinar summary – Conference on the Future of Europe: How can higher education contribute to shaping the future of Europe?

The first HEInnovate webinar of the new year was organised as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which invites European citizens to debate Europe’s challenges and priorities, and to put forward recommendations for the future.

With this focus, the HEInnovate webinar provided a forum to discuss the priorities and challenges of Europe through the lens of the entrepreneurial and innovative higher education institution. The panellists and audience were invited to help shape the debate and to draw out their own recommendations to feed into the Conference as a whole.

The webinar was moderated by Rebecca Allinson, Managing Partner at Technopolis Group. It attracted an international audience of 114 people, who were actively encouraged to contribute to the discussion through polls, questions and posting recommendations comments to the panel on the contribution of higher education to supporting European values and addressing societal challenges.

The panellists.

The panel discussion involved short introductions from representatives of different perspectives within the higher education community and a moderated discussion with Q&A:

  • Dr John Edwards, the Secretary General of EURASHE, the European Association representing Professional Higher Education Institutions. He has specific expertise on the role of HEIs in economic development and innovation. Between 2011-2020, he worked for the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, managing its work on higher education and VET in Smart Specialisation. John is also coordinating the Erasmus+ UASiMAP project to assess the regional contribution of Universities of Applied Science.
  • Dr Ruaidhri Neavyn, a Special Adviser on Higher Education Policy Development with the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in Ireland. His activities in higher education (HE) policy development have included enterprise engagement activities, industry linked HE programmes, HE system performance frameworks and international collaborative networks. Ruaidhri served as President of two institutes of technology in Ireland. He has been an expert advisor for the OECD and EU on numerous international HE reviews and is currently a member of the Portuguese Higher Education Advisory Council and the Chair of the OECD’s group of national experts on higher education. He is one of the founders of the Regional University Network-European University and is a member of its management and co-ordination council.
  • Adina Fodor Ph.D., the Head of the Office for Interuniversity Agreements, Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania, has been active in delivering workshops on the HEInnovate self-assessment tool to universities in Europe and Africa. She has participated in several projects dedicated to exploring the entrepreneurial potential, bolstering institutional development through cooperation, and widening participation in higher education. She is also a member of the executive committee of the SGroup – Universities in Europe network – where she mainly concentrates on international projects and the social mission of universities.
  • Anca del Rio, EIT Alumni President is a thought leader in the healthcare industry and an experienced catalyst and community builder in the innovation ecosystem in Switzerland, EU, the UK, USA and Australia. In her presidential role with the EIT Alumni, Anca is committed and driven to foster a greener, healthier, inclusive and digitally enabled Europe by leading and representing a global Network of over 14.000 young innovators and entrepreneurs, from all EIT Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs).

How can higher education contribute to shaping the future of Europe? / What the experts say

Dr John Edwards – International perspective

Reflecting on the mission of universities over the centuries, John observed that recently universities have become more detached from society and processes, such as international rankings and the pursuit of research excellence, have taken universities away from their civic responsibilities. Therefore, John urged citizens to ask not only what universities are good at, but also what they are good for.

Recommendation n. 1 – Responding to the citizen’s demand for entrepreneurial universities

Entrepreneurial HEIs are increasingly in demand, as they are able to deliver public benefits and contribute to society. In Europe, the concept of entrepreneurial HEIs, which is reflected in the HEInnovate framework, refers to universities as entrepreneurial actors addressing societal challenges as well as developing entrepreneurial capabilities of their students and graduates. 

Recommendation n. 2 – Institutional autonomy should go hand in hand with accountability

In addition, John recognised how the issue of university autonomy is central to the entrepreneurial university and its position in the ecosystem. On one hand, autonomy creates the conditions for the university to contribute to society; on the other hand, some universities often use institutional autonomy to their advantage to avoid institutional change. Autonomy, therefore, must go hand in hand with accountability to deliver results back to society.

Recommendation n. 3 – European funding for programmes that mix HE policies with other policy areas

Finally, John pointed out that while higher education is a national competence, it often has an international impact and entrepreneurial universities are an example of how HE policies can cut across many other policy areas, such as R&I, employment, cohesion, skills, international mobility. These intersectoral policies are supported by European funding and programmes; therefore, the higher education system has an important role in creating environments where cross policy activities can be implemented, leading to higher levels of impact.

Dr Ruaidhri Neavyn – National perspective

Ruaidhri reminded the audience that the sheer impact of universities is immense. Higher education as a sector is a key driver in societal, economic and cultural value creation. By their nature, universities deliver a lot to society through teaching, learning, education, research and engagement.

Reflecting on how HEIs can have an even greater impact, Ruaidhri stated that societal engines such as education, government, business and society itself, need to work together to find solutions to common problems and make the solutions sustainable – not just economically, but also on the level of values, as sustainable societies.

Recommendation n. 4 – Increased collaboration of European university networks, HE ecosystems going beyond national boundaries

In the context of the future of Europe, European society should not expect just education or research from universities; instead, universities should be driving societal development through greater collaboration. Ruaidhri stressed that HEIs will need to shift the focus from the national context to beyond national boundaries by expanding the capacity and the activity of collaborative European university networks, working together as a collective mind to address the common challenges of climate, inclusion and digital transformation.

Adina Fodor Ph.D – Institutional perspective

Thinking about the future of European universities, Adina posed two questions:

  • Should universities in Europe form an alliance and collaborate in order to thrive, or even survive in some cases?
  • And if so, what would they be forced to lose or neglect?

Recommendation n. 5 – Increased collaboration of European university networks, without losing universities’ singularity 

Should alliances be born, Adina observed that universities might lose their individual institutional identity and vision to the advantage of the alliance’s purpose and objectives. Indeed, not all HEIs are equally embedded in their regional networks, nor should they all compete globally with their peers, but their identity should be shaped at the confluence between the individual institutional vision and mission, and external factors such as regional strategies, national policies and European networks. Adina also warned against an “inclusion by exclusion” scenario, in which some universities do not manage to enter such European alliances.

Recommendation n. 6 – Implement strategies to forge strong identities, foster the entrepreneurial mindset and lead motivated transformation

Adina suggested a goal-driven approach for entrepreneurial universities, consisting in developing a clear vision on how they intend to address societal challenges and making a realistic assessment of the resources that they have. This also includes consideration of whether an institution has the leadership with the right skills required to bring institutional transformation. In addition, HEIs should:

  • Foster the entrepreneurial mindset in students and lifelong learners
  • Identify and support their boundary spanners (the interfaces between HEIs and the external environment)
  • Champion the role played by teachers and researchers by using acknowledgement systems which go beyond bibliometric indicators
  • Emphasise ownership and co-creation so that student can inspire for institutional or societal change.

Adina is confident that by implementing these actions, universities can forge strong identities and lead motivated transformation.

Anca del Rio – Young leaders, innovators & entrepreneurs /Alumni perspective

Anca highlighted how the latest global crises and hazards showed that things need to change. The future must be purpose- and passion-driven; Europe needs bold ideas, bright minds and brave spirits to shift the paradigm and overcome global challenges. HEIs play a critical role in equipping students and next generations with the right knowledge, tools and mindset to foster innovation and technological developments and become the drivers of change that the Future of Europe needs.

Recommendation n. 7 – Making the voice of the youth heard and making them active part of the change

Anca pointed out that this can only be achieved if the new generations have greater self-awareness and actively engage in making a change. Therefore, Anca stressed the importance of students and how European universities should make the voice of the youth heard, developing young leaders who will design the future of Europe.

As part of a collective journey, silos need to be broken down and the higher education sector needs to be equipped with the technology and entrepreneurial skills required to foster change.

Anca advocated for the need to empower youth activism and suggested that HEIs create the possibility for students to become confident leaders by making them aware of the risks but also encouraging them to be risk-takers.

Visions for a bolder European higher education sector

Recommendation n. 8 – Fostering the EU value of social cohesion in remote regions

Discussing which European values HEIs help protect, John emphasised the social and territorial cohesion of the EU. Higher education gives a first opportunity for European connection to places that are excluded, providing a continued place-based engagement and learning.

Recommendation n. 9 – Embedding EU values at the national context; measuring performance against targets to understand the impact generated

In terms of policy areas that should be prioritised to improve the innovative and entrepreneurial nature of HEIs, and at the same time taking into consideration EU values, Ruaidhri stated that a starting point is making sure that European values and qualities are reflected and embedded at the national level. In terms of delivering policy objectives, Ruaidhri advocated the need for the EU and national governments to create and invest in specific target driven calls and initiatives for HEIs, which would help better align existing HEI strategies with future EU objectives. Target driven calls and initiatives facilitate getting value from the investment: setting targets and measuring performance against them makes it possible to understand the impact generated.

Recommendation n. 10 – Teaching transversal skills and critical thinking to students to prepare them for the future

On the theme of how HEIs can properly prepare students for future challenges, Adina reminded the audience of a World Forum estimate which stated that 65% of children entering primary schools today will end up doing completely new jobs that do not yet exist[1]. Therefore, Adina suggested that HEIs should focus on teaching transversal skills, that would allow students to perform and prosper in any future job. Examples of these skills include building an entrepreneurial mindset and critical thinking.

Recommendation n. 11 – A better balance of theory and practice to motivate students to be active change-makers

Reflecting on the biggest challenge in the field of innovation/entrepreneurship for young leaders, Anca observed that higher education can work to better motivate students to be active change-makers. Anca urges universities to create a better balance of theory and practice in order to provide more opportunities for students to build the confidence and skills needed for the entrepreneurial journey. To equip the youth with the right tools, knowledge and support, HEIs themselves need to have the right support group and find help and resources in the right network.

Recommendation n. 12 – Supporting students with their diverse needs and mental health

In addition, both Adina and Anca encouraged HEIs to consider the diverse needs of the students and the deeper struggle of the new generation with mental health issues more attentively.

How can higher education contribute to shaping the future of Europe? / Q&A from the audience

During the webinar, participants had the chance to shape the debate of the Conference on the Future of Europe by submitting their questions, thoughts and poll votes.  

With regard to recommendations to HE policy makers on what to focus on to support the future of Europe, the audience mainly opted for the internationalisation of research and education partnership, as well as international university-industry cooperation, with the latter receiving the most votes. The audience also voted as important topics for policy discussion mobility of students, supporting entrepreneurial and innovative HE, autonomy and academic freedom and knowledge circulation.

Q&A poll

Questions from the audience investigated:

  • How Europe can learn from exciting and ambitious initiatives being implemented in non-European HEIs
  • Opportunities for European young entrepreneurs to expand in international markets
  • Priorities for teachers training programmes

One topic of particular interest involved exploring ways to measure the value of services through which universities are contributing to society. In an effort to make universities accountable for their contribution, how can this value be assessed in practice?

Recommendation n. 13 – HE assessment systems that favour quality and accreditation rather than competition

Adina acknowledged how measurement systems need to be in place, but she also called for a more constructive and positive approach that favours quality and accreditation instead of competitiveness, and where rankings and comparisons are just a result instead of the purpose of HEIs.

Recommendation n. 14 – Using competitions to gather examples of best practice to share with the wider HE ecosystem

Drawing on his experience from a system performance review, Ruaidhri suggested that competitions or challenges can be a way to discover, monitor and assess best practice examples. Monitoring impact from a central point would be an impossible task; instead, HEIs would come forward voluntarily to showcase their best practices and impact, incentivised by funding. This would also result in good practice example for the whole HE system.

John agreed that tying institutional funding to impact is very difficult and he added that even if the data on European universities’ impact on society existed, it would not be possible to use common indicators across all European HEIs. The assessment needs to be done at national levels and it requires experts and strong processes in order to optimise decisions on funding.

The one thing to focus on in the future

Combining our experts’ views on the key focus for the future, the webinar concluded with a final collective recommendation:

Recommendation n. 15 – Through increased investment, the focus should be on creating change for more impactful innovation. Not just basic research, but also an increased focus on European values of community, collaboration, interdisciplinarity, identity and internationalisation. Ultimately, more emphasis on EQ rather than IQ.  

To join in the debate on the Conference of Europe, everyone is welcome to register on the official platform of the Conference.

You can find the recording of the HEInnovate webinar here.


[1] https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_FOJ_Executive_Summary_Jobs.pdf

HEInnovate webinar summary – Conference on the Future of Europe
  • Webinar summary
Submitted by:
HEInnovate Admin
Submitted on:
11 Feb 2022
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