Incentivise staff to take part in innovation, universities told

Survey by European University Association finds gap between institutions’ commitment to innovation and their capacity to carry it out

November 10, 2021
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Universities should provide incentives and better support for academics to become involved in innovation activities, according to the main association representing European higher education institutions.

A survey conducted by the European University Association found that while 75 per cent of the 166 institutions that responded said their “overall strategic attention” to innovation was high or very high, only 59 per cent considered their capacity for innovation to be at a similar level.

A position paper published on 10 November attributes the difference to “limited resources”. “It seems that lack of sufficient funding, limited staff resources to fulfil all university missions and no official recognition of innovation activities in career assessment are important aspects hindering university innovation capacity,” the EUA report says.

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It recommends that universities “recognise a wide range of academic staff contributions in career assessment, including innovation activities”, in order to incentivise academic participation, emphasising that such work “should be considered in a broader sense, including its economic, social, cultural, ethical and environmental impacts”.

“There are many who contribute but are not recognised,” Stephane Berghmans, the EUA’s director for research and innovation, said of the current situation.

The survey found that the number of innovation partnerships set up with businesses, the public sector and civil society organisations was the most widely used institutional measure of innovation success. And while patents, start-ups and entrepreneurship teaching can be used to measure individual researchers’ contributions, much activity remains unquantifiable, according to the report.

“Very often, it’s not tangible,” said Kamila Kozirog, a policy and project officer at the EUA who led the work. One example of a contribution that might be overlooked was an academic informally helping institutional relations with industry, she said.

Co-authorship on scientific papers allowed research managers to map out networks of collaboration, but equivalents were lacking for innovation, Dr Berghmans said. “We’re starting to try to see how we want to broaden this assessment and make it so it encompasses all the different hats that an academic can wear at a university,” he said.

Institutions could incentivise measurable innovation success financially, by offering academics more flexible contracts that include work at a company, or through prizes or support services that smooth networking with industry, said Ms Kozirog.

National competitive funding was the most frequently cited source of support for innovation. The second most-mentioned was Erasmus+, a result that surprised the analysts, and which they said reflected the broad scope of the survey. Erasmus+ funds innovative international collaboration in teaching and learning, for example.

The report recommends that policymakers support universities’ innovation activities by reducing regulatory burdens, boosting funding and backing long-term research.

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