young minds and conducting research to learn more about the world around us –
that’s what most people would say is the role of the university. But is it
still? The role has changed fundamentally since the dawn of the twenty-first
century. Today, universities have to teach not only knowledge but skills. Professors
not only have to conduct research but have to effectively communicate it to the
world. And of course, universities have to increase their own reputation to
rank high in the global race for the best and brightest. And all that with the
decreasing funds institutions receive from the ministry of education.
At the same time, universities are faced with accusations from the public. “We need skills that make us employable” is what students demand while business owners complain that “Instead of more papers, we need more innovations”. After all, everyone’s tax money is given to universities as funding – and the public asks: What do we get in return?
The third mission of the university seeks to bridge that gap – to empower all members of society by directly engaging them with the university, and to add to the institutions budget while at it. One example is the innovation network “Innonet BNE” of the University of Erfurt. In this network, students and local stakeholders from private and public sector organizations work together to create innovative solutions for local problems in the field of sustainable development. One project was e.g. providing bike-sharing facilities as a public-private partnership or saving energy through a competition for all students on campus. Students gained new entrepreneurial skills and increased their professional network, while project partners could get new ideas for their business. All that funded not through the university, but through project funds of external partners. Doing more with less – made at the University of Erfurt.
Back when the project started in 2012, there were not only enthusiastic voices about this new type of relationship. Some professors argued that the university is degraded to work at an arm’s length of businesses, becoming service providers rather than knowledge producers. Meanwhile, defenders counter that we cannot deny the symptoms of our times, where practical skills are needed to turn knowledge into more than just another term paper. Furthermore, knowledge for the sake of knowledge is what led to the ivory tower of the sciences in the 1980s, when the first major cuts to university budgets appeared. At the time, research did not seem relevant for the majority of the public, but was self-preservative instead. That is why today so many university leaders are increasingly looking to build bridges with public actors – be it from the economic, social or political sphere. The third mission is exactly that and it is needed to claim back the central space universities once had in society: A vivid exchange of ideas and opinions, not only within scientific communities, but with and for society at large.
Therefore, university leaders have to engage with actors outside the campus to build strategic relationships. Fruitful relationships though are not only the ones which involve research grants from foundations or large corporations. A graduate who has the skills to join the company of his dreams, a local NGO getting support from a group of students for its social media marketing or professors using their research findings to spark an informed debate with policy makers are invaluable outcomes of such engagement activities. Many good concepts, like the BNE at the University of Erfurt, already exist. Now it is time for the European University Association (EUA), the conference of leaders of universities across the continent, to discuss best practice models and implement sustainable strategies to engage university actors with society.