Universities are increasingly called upon to engage with local and regional government, namely as part of a ‘third academic mission’, but how effectively do they incentivize academics to do so? Using evidence from her study of the University of Aveiro, Liliana Fonseca explores the barriers that hinder engagement with these institutions and makes recommendations for how universities could expand and improve the implementation of the third mission.

The role that universities play in driving local economic development through their engagement with regional governance and local policy has received much attention recently. Notably, the EU’s smart specialisation framework recognises universities as key stakeholders in the process of economic innovation. As a result, there has been a rush to involve universities in developing regional strategy and innovation policies within the EU. However, the ability of universities and local stakeholders to engage in this way is poorly understood.

In some respects, the contributions made by universities to their local regions are widely recognised. Universities and the research they produce are increasingly expected to have local impacts. Thus, alongside their more traditional ‘missions’ of teaching and research, a new role of active engagement with external actors, or a “third mission”, has been institutionalised by universities.

However, while this engagement can encompass collaboration with a wide array of external partners, there has been a tendency to narrowly focus on university-industry links and economic-centred notions of universities’ engagement activities (Pugh, Hamilton, Jack, & Gibbons, 2016). Universities (and academics) also tend to prioritise their established missions of teaching and research and the integration of the third mission into the daily academic routines and practices at all levels is variable. Two questions arise as to why this might be the case:

Do universities effectively support engagement?

A range of factors shape the ability of a university to engage in its region: geographical location, historical context, the organisational structure of the university, its management vision, and the nature of the stakeholders it is seeking to engage with. In the case of the University of Aveiro (UA) in Portugal, the context for the research underpinning this blog, these factors were influential. The university positioned itself as an entrepreneurial institution, highly engaged with local and regional government. However, whilst this orientation and its resulting organisational support structures (technology transfer office and technology platforms) were important in shaping the relationship of the university to the region, there was a mismatch between this discourse and actual practice. In particular, and in contrast to teaching and research, there was an absence of a clear overarching strategy for the third mission, leaving few incentives for academics to engage. Instead, the dominant discourse focused on producing marketable outputs. The importance of engaging with the third mission was thus poorly conveyed to academics, who prioritised other activities.

Are academics motivated to engage?

Responding to this institutional environment, individual academics tended to pursue engagement activities on a discretionary basis, driven by their own agendas. This led to the development of a range of both formal and informal collaboration channels. Interviews at UA also highlighted a number of constraining factors in their disposition to engage:

Limited financial, human and time resources;

Complex bureaucratic processes;

Too many engagement channels;

Narrow forms of performance evaluation.

These factors led academics to either downplay their engagement activities or disregard them completely. They also encouraged the concentration of third mission-oriented projects amongst academics more comfortable with these processes, i.e., those more used to engaging with external partners and navigating these organisational channels. Notably, STEM disciplines tended to benefit, as they engage more frequently with the private sector and were thus more aligned with the traditional commercialisation discourse on engagement present in the university.

Reshaping the third mission to engage with local and regional government

Whereas, hindrances to academic engagement have been widely explored in relation to university-industry links, there is a growing need for the particularities of academic engagement with local and regional governance to be considered. In this respect, through the course of my research, three key barriers to this form of engagement emerged:

1) Local and regional government is a highly fragmented arena of political power, with potential for competition between municipalities.

2) Local and regional governments often lack the resources and skills required to engage effectively with universities, particularly in the field of innovation.

3) The timescales and institutional cultures between local and regional government and universities are markedly different.

These barriers were not unique to the case of the University of Aveiro. Research, such as that of D’Este & Patel (2007) and Rose, Decter, Robinson, Jack, & Lockett (2013), has found that the way in which universities currently implement the third mission is failing to provide the necessary channels, mechanisms and incentives to promote engagement across a range of stakeholders. What was apparent in my research was, that this is particularly the case with local and regional government. If this is going to change, policymakers must consider that for different engagement channels (e.g. patenting, consulting, workshops), and different partners (e.g. businesses, government authorities, third sector organisations), different incentives should be deployed. To this end, the following proposals would begin to address at least some of these problems:

Flexible schedules and contracts, rejecting the notion of fixed teaching and research quotas and instead recognising the existence of individual academic profiles and pathways to engagement.

Upgrade of career advancement and performance evaluations to not just value engagement, but also its multiple layers and types, using quantitative and qualitative criteria.

Provide training in regional engagement. Since academics receive training in the traditional missions of teaching and research, they are more comfortable performing them. Training in external engagement, on the adequate organisational processes, proper communication with partners, and on the vicissitudes and entry barriers potentially involved may promote and enhance the third mission.

Promote pedagogical approaches to engagement, which can enhance external partners’ skills and regional capabilities in the long-term.

Identify, understand and address critical areas of engagement in governance and policy-making for collaboration with local and regional government.

Only when we reflect on the shortcomings of current models and refute basic assumptions of engagement, is it possible to move toward a more effective understanding of the third mission. One that promotes different forms of engagement, with different partners, and understands societal benefit as the result of a much broader range of activities than we do currently. Incentivising the frequent and varied application of a wider set of mechanisms and engagement pathways, could potentially bridge this gap and create the conditions in which universities and their regions better adapt and respond creatively to new and existing challenges.


This blog post is based on Fonseca, L. (2018) “To Engage or Not to Engage? Developing Academic Drivers for Collaborating with Local and Regional Government in Policy-Design”, RSA Regions e-Zine, Issue 2, Regional Insights. DOI: 10.1080/13673882.2018.00001011

Image Credit: 12019 via Pixabay (Licensed under CC0 licence)

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About the author

Liliana Fonseca, is a PhD fellow in Public Policy at the University of Aveiro, Portugal and is an ESR fellow of the RUNIN project, which received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 722295.


ORCID 0000-0002-9041-0921


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