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Reshaping Innovation into the 21st Century: What is the Role of Higher Education?

If universities begin to develop relations with corporations, they will be able to make a greater contribution to future innovation and prosperity than if they continue to operate business as usual. Photo by Masterzphotofo.

Like all advanced economies, Canada’s and the United States’ are undergoing a dramatic transformation. Our 21st century graduates’ futures will undoubtedly involve responses to challenges we have never before faced. Creativity, critical thinking and problem solving will be hallmarks of solutions at the individual, societal and political levels.

How do colleges and universities contribute to the knowledge economy? What role should higher education play in an era where high levels of innovation will help us respond to the issues ahead? What role does internationalization play in innovation? How can university continuing and professional learning units assist?

I attended the launch of a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Report on economic prosperity in Canada at the Ontario Institute for the Studies of Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. The report (OECD, 2012) identified several ways that higher education institutions could ramp up their contributions to innovation and prosperity. I have used this Report, together with several other papers on the same theme to contribute to the conversation. I’ll use the frames developed by a paper, Betts and Lee (2004)—the university as trainer, innovator, partner, regional talent magnet, and facilitator —to explore this topic.

University as trainer

The OECD Report (2012) indicated that educational attainment is a key driver of economic performance, especially related to innovative growth, though there is one proviso. It is the actual skills and knowledge acquired that matter for productivity. It follows that improving the quality of education is at least as important as increasing the overall rate of participation in higher education.

As a trainer, the OECD Report (2012) recommended universities add some specifics to curricula, arguing for the teaching of the right combination of skills: technical skills, communication skills, analytical skills and business acumen. Simply striving for a larger number of graduating scientists is not the answer; it is what the graduates can do with their knowledge that will determine individual contributions to research and development.

More flexible university processes, as advocated for in the Report, would allow for ‘continued skills upgrading’, better credit transfer arrangements and therefore mobility of students across the country. In Ontario in the Creative Age (Martin & Florida, 2009), Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School, University of Toronto, counsels universities to invest more resources in a curricula dedicated to enhancing the managerial capability of students. Why is project management not part of a general curriculum for university students? Continuing and Professional Learning units have a role to play in the development and teaching of project management fundamentals.

The university as innovator

This frame refers to single and independent contributions made by individual universities on their own to innovative activities within their respective spheres. Universities must continue to succeed at attracting the best and brightest by casting a wide net beyond the local schools within their area. The educational pipeline actually begins in elementary and secondary schools across the country. This pipeline also increasingly extends to all corners of the globe the internationalizing of student populations ramps up.

And what about the students? No doubt about it, the quest for talent has become global. Several studies have shown that foreign students have more successful labor-market outcomes if they study at local universities, rather than applying with degrees from their homeland. Transitions to the job market are easier. Matches of skill sets and understanding of context for new workers trained within Canada are better. Several provinces have begun to fast-track permanent residency for international graduates and preliminary results “suggest these programs are helping to improve labor-market outcomes” (OECD, 2012, p.28).

The role of technology-assisted learning cannot be overlooked. It is becoming an essential workplace skill, as working in ‘virtual’ teams increases. Most importantly learning with technology prepares our students to become lifelong learners. Using technology will, as well, provide students more choice of courses while at college or university. Strengthening Ontario’s Centers of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge—a discussion paper released in spring 2012identified that “innovative applications of emerging technologies not only offer flexibility of time and place in delivery, but also could support improvements to the teaching and learning process.” Most often, university continuing and professional learning units are their respective university leaders in online education.

While universities are a provincial matter in Canada, the federal government has made targeted grants to increase research output across the nation. This has been successful. So now what? All this expenditure has not led to a steady stream of innovative commercial products and solutions so the answer must lie elsewhere. We will look to the frames below for more enlightenment. It appears that synergy, connectivity and networking create the necessary models for innovation and universities play an important, but not sole role in these endeavors to increase productivity. These last three frames are closely intertwined.

University as partner

Betts and Lee (2004) argue this frame involves the University’s provision of technical know-how to local and national companies through fee-for service agreements and less formal consulting on the part of individual and groups of university professors.

In these types of ventures the university functions at arm’s-length from their partners and not truly collaboratively. The OECD Report (2012) recommends that in incentivizing academics to produce research relevant to business needs, and conversely, firms should be encouraged to undertake partnerships through vouchers as one way to pursue research ‘products’ universities have to offer. The recent the Ontario discussion on universities and colleges paper indicates “growth in entrepreneurialism is not only fuelled by access to lifelong learning, but also includes making greater use of a variety of innovative learning tools and teaching approaches”. Who better to lead the way than university continuing and professional learning units?

The final two frames provide keys to success in the intertwined areas of innovation, research and development.

University as talent magnet

This is a concept developed by urban studies theorist Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class (2002). Florida looked closely at several noted urban hubs of innovation in North America in order to determine if there were special characteristics that led to the creativity of those living within them. The presence of a university appears to be a necessary component for of ingenuity within its populace. Two of these cities—Austin, Texas and Toronto, Ontario—are systems with a strong confluence of diversity of populace, lots of new immigrants and vibrant university communities. Proximity matters. Firms can mix with those in universities and become pools of scientists and technicians, from within universities and from within companies nearby have opportunities to mix and generate second, third and fourth generation companies. Graduates of these universities, fresh with new ideas provide new pools of talent for these firms. Universities serve as attractors for students who when they graduate, stay on and work in these cities. Taken together, innovation and creativity follows.

University as facilitator

Universities can create opportunities and venues to facilitate networking among those involved in the high tech community from the private and public sectors and faculties. Betts and Lee (2004) comment on the wide gulf between basic research and a marketable product. There is a need for teams to bring an idea to market, to mentor and provide advice at all stages of innovation. It is seldom that university professors possess the full suite of skills to make such ventures a reality. Universities can provide the necessary nexus where seasoned professionals from high tech industry can mentor less experienced faculty to create thriving startups. Joint work on projects, not only through consulting, but also through access to university resources and access to specialized facilities assists in the development of new products and indicate a way that universities can facilitative innovation.

In conclusion, there is a critical role that universities, with their units of continuing and professional learning can play in societal innovation for the future. This topic is quickly becoming an urgent need. We need to think ‘outside the box’ and quickly, in order to make this happen!

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Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.

Martin, R. & Florida, R. (2009). Ontario in the Creative Age. Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute.

Betts, J. & Lee, C. (2004, February). Universities as drivers of regional and national innovation: An assessment of the linkages from universities to innovation and economic growth. Paper presented at the John Deutsch Institute Conference on “Higher Education in Canada”, Kingston, Ontario.

Ministry of Education and Training, Colleges and Universities. (2012, June). Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge – a discussion paper to make our university and college system stronger.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2012, June). OECD Economic Surveys Canada.

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