Regional context and third mission - Reflections on universities’ engagement with Structural Funds programmes in the Satakunta region

Maria Salomaa
University of Lincoln

Universities are increasingly expected to support their local economy and engage with regional stakeholders. The third mission being widely acknowledged in higher education policies, universities have become more connected on a regional level through different kinds of engagement mechanisms, such as projects and networks. Despite the dominant 'one-size-fits-all' approach to regional development, the volume and form of engagement is highly dependent on the regional context. In the past decades, the Finnish higher education policies have indeed linked universities’ third mission more closely with regional development, which, for its part, resulted in the establishment of six university consortia to foster the economic growth in their locations. The university consortia, collaboration networks coordinating different activities of several host universities in peripheral areas, have thus a special focus on the regional mission. In addition to providing access to higher education in these more remote regions and generating skilled workforce to the local job market, they collaborate regularly with businesses, NGOs and public sector. They are also typically more active in taking part in Structural Funds (SF) projects than their home universities located in larger cities.

The Structural Funds programmes can be significant tools of regional development, especially in funding local R&D activities. They are also one of the key instruments supporting regional collaboration between higher education, businesses and other local stakeholders, especially in more peripheral areas. Higher education institutions are expected to take an active role in these programmes, but currently they are rather marginal and less known funding instrument for Finnish universities. Although the university consortia’s enhanced regional role is self-evident, the Finnish state funding model for universities, also applied to these remote units, is entirely based on traditional academic outcomes. Therefore, universities are forced to fund their regional development activities with external funds from the municipalities, regions and SF programmes. However, the latter are less appealing to university organisations because of their applied approach to research, high bureaucracy and self-financing rates, and most importantly lack of performance-indicators for the third mission activities in the current state funding model.

This study focuses on how regional context affects to universities regional engagement through SF programmes. An exploratory case study of University Consortium of Pori (UC-Pori) mainly draws on semi-structured interviews with researchers and universities’ top and middle management, and secondary data set including SF project data bases, regional policies and institutional strategies. UC-Pori is a network of four Finnish universities (Aalto University, Tampere University of Technology, University of Tampere and University of Turku) located in the Satakunta region in the Western Finland. It serves as an exemplary case of a remote university unit that engages very actively with SF programmes in contrast to their home universities; at the time of the research interviews, UC-Pori had been granted nineteen SF projects from the current programme period. The aim is to study how the home universities steer UC-Pori’s regional mission. What are the main benefits of SF projects for universities: are SF projects an opportunistic way to diversify the funding base of entrepreneurial universities with easy “add-ons” to raise regional profile? Is the participation a question of survival, an access to less competitive external funding to safeguard jobs? Or can the SF activities be strategically planned way to implement third stream activities while successfully combined with universities traditional missions?

Tentative results from the UC-Pori indicate that universities’ regional engagement through SF programmes rely heavily on individual academics efforts, and is more valued in remote university units, whereas there is a lack of general interest and steering from their home universities. Despite their evident regional benefits, engaging with SF projects can be seen as unimportant activity taking time from ‘serious research activities’. Nonetheless, the researchers working in the Satakunta region share a more positive view on the overall importance of implementing the third mission especially through SF projects. They provide a platform for collaboration with a number of external stakeholders, including local businesses and other HEIs, though sometimes SF projects are just an easy access to external funding without further agenda. In regard to academic missions, SF projects can offer rich data sets for research projects and financing for PhD students, but currently the strict national programme guidelines and bureaucratic overload hinder academics to reach projects’ full potential neither in research nor in commercial activities.