Universities are teaching their students to view entrepreneurship as a kind of “21st-century heroism”, according to a new Europe-wide analysis that uncovers how deeply some institutions have taken on a new role to promote “innovation” in the economy and wider society.
This so-called third mission has sometimes been seen as suffering from neglect compared with the university’s traditional goals of teaching and research. But a new report, based on more than 100 interviews at nine universities across Europe, suggests that in at least some institutions, that might be changing.
Sybille Reichert, the report’s author and former chancellor of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, said that she was “struck” by how the third mission had moved from a “marginalised space” in universities to become central to teaching and research.
It is no longer seen as a “special extra function once you’ve done the core of teaching and research”, she said.
The report, The Role of Universities in Regional Ecosystems, was commissioned by the European University Association and presented at its recent annual conference.
The findings show not just changes in policy to ensure that academics work outside their disciplines and universities, but a reshaping of students’ worldviews to make them more “entrepreneurial”.
“Innovation is staged as a new form of 21st-century heroism in which the entrepreneur, with unmitigated energy and faith in his – or more rarely her – success, meets a near-impossible challenge and, with the help of loyal supporters, defies all adversities to win success,” the report finds.
At universities including Aalto University in Finland, Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and the Technical University of Munich, students are being encouraged to think of themselves as “innovators” who “find or adapt to disruptive innovations”.
“I was struck by how hyped the whole start-up scene was,” Dr Reichert said.
But this shift in mindset was only in part being pushed by universities – much of the impetus is coming from students themselves, she added.
“There’s this sense of urgency in wanting to address the big challenges of our time,” she said. On the whole, an enthusiasm for entrepreneurship was not being driven by dreams of Silicon Valley fortunes, Dr Reichert explained; rather, many surveyed student start-ups tackled environmental problems. “The money question is actually subordinate,” she said.
The report also found widespread concern about a “dependence” on research funding from industry as public support dwindled in several countries.
Even corporate representatives said that they were concerned that the balance had tipped too far away from blue-sky, “unplanned” research with unclear outcomes, Dr Reichert warned. Cutbacks in curiosity-driven research were seen as “undermining innovation in the long term” she said.
She also discovered a big uptick in the hiring of so-called professors of practice, part-time teachers who also work in industry, hired to bring real-life problems to the lecture hall, or act as student mentors. At some universities, “it’s not one or two, it’s hundreds”, she explained.
This desire to use lecture hall knowledge in the real world had transformed how students view what university is for, Dr Reichert said, perhaps because of greater awareness of the pressing environmental, social and economic challenges facing the world.
“The sense of urgency is different,” she said, adding that there was a feeling among students that “if we don’t solve these problems, they will solve us.”