Why Universities Matter

Empirically, regions with universities grow faster than those without, and in smaller places, the university’s role is even more important. Universities “heavily influence the ability of regions to attract and retain technology-intensive firms, to provide the regional labor force with modern knowledge skills, and to respond flexibly to…. economic circumstances.”
University research spurs the creation of new firms and thus affects regional employment. Research partnerships with universities expand and complement the absorptive capacity of the firms, increasing their innovation and competitiveness.
For regions to be competitive,
“The key event is the creation of an entrepreneurial university, whether from an existing academic base or a new foundation, which takes initiatives together with government and industry to create a support structure for firm formation and regional growth.”
The entrepreneurial university is characterized by a focus on industry-partnerships, technology transfer of research discoveries to interested and capable industry partners, including startups, support for entrepreneurs, whether students, faculty, or community-based, and support for the ecosystem, often in the form of research parks, incubators, and other capital-intensive infrastructure.
University spin-offs are an important part of the picture since they provide innovative products, new jobs, induce corporate investment in university R&D and have highly localized impacts. Eighty percent of spin-offs operate in the same state as their host institution. However, technology transfer efforts such as these are most effective if they are located within a strong innovation ecosystem and when university reward systems are aligned with desired outcomes.
There is also rising interest in entrepreneurship among students. Increasingly, campuses are involved with supporting entrepreneurs, including student-led companies as well as those from the community. Universities that support entrepreneurs and new businesses, including those generated both on and off campus, also support a flexible and creative workforce, and can significantly leverage economic revitalization. Indeed, students with entrepreneurial skills and knowledge are themselves a valuable output of any university.
The role of a university in its community seems to have changed along with many other institutions in our society. The ivory tower image of a university with a sole focus on teaching and research has given way to an understanding that universities are important place-based assets that can help a region be competitive in a knowledge-based economy. The linear science-push model has given way to a more nuanced and complex understanding of entwined interests among universities, industry and government, and a new contract has arisen, one that suggests than in return for public funds, universities must address their “users” – society and the economy – and be more accountable.
For a recent project, we looked at how high performing regions organize themselves to support innovation and entrepreneurship, especially the interactions between the anchor innovation assets like universities and the surrounding business community.
We learned:
• The places studied that are doing better seem to have accomplished an integrated approach to economic development that embraces traditional business attraction as well as innovation and entrepreneurship support, workforce development, and place-making. Transportation, excellence in K-12, arts and culture all play a part in the approach.
• For many universities, moving from a model of teaching, research and service to one that more explicitly includes economic development is a long-term evolution. Each of the universities highlighted was in some stage of this evolution, with most having significant research, technology transfer, entrepreneurial support, and research commercialization activities.
• The places studied vary in the tightness of the connection between the university and local/regional economic development, with most having a greater relationship in the university’s home community and diminishing impact in rural communities farther away.
• The areas vary considerably in their attention to the issue of inclusion, with two explicitly and prominently seeking to extend economic prosperity to all of its citizens, regardless of their location (urban and rural), and actively seeking ways to connect the poorest to better jobs, higher skills and more supportive neighborhoods.
• Two of the places studied have made significant investments in broadband, and two have focused on air service, both essential infrastructure for a knowledge-based or creative economy.

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