Attitudes of Academics towards Universities’ Third Mission

Ajax Persaud
University of Ottawa

Mark Freel
University of Ottawa

Tyler Chamberlin
University of Ottawa

Research over the last two decades indicates that universities are under mounting pressure from policymakers and industry executives to go beyond their traditional core mission of teaching and research and engage with their communities through a wide range of socio-economic activities in response to society’s needs (Gunasekara, 2006). This engagement with the wider society is generally referred to as the ‘third mission’ and describes “the generation, use, application and exploitation of knowledge and other university capabilities outside academic environments” (Molas-Gallart, Salter, Patel, Scott, & Duran, 2002 p. iii-iv). Under the third mission, universities are expected to contribute to society through activities such as patenting, spin-offs, contracts and research and development, consultancy, embedding knowledge in students, training activities such as work terms, internships and co-ops, and upgrading regional business environments (Arbo & Benneworth, 2007; Sánchez-Barrioluengo, 2014).

Several catalysts for the third mission have been identified in the literature. These include deliberate government policies such as the Bayh-Dole Act in the United States and similar policies in Europe, Canada and elsewhere (Nelles & Vorley, 2010), reduction in government funding to universities (Rosenberg & Nelson, 1994), the rise of the knowledge economy where universities are seen as the engines that drive reginal innovation systems (OECD, 2007), the emergence of new knowledge areas, and positive spillovers on competitiveness from academic research (Nelles & Vorley, 2010).

Indeed, the promotion of third mission activities has decisively entered into the set of goals pursued by universities around the world (Cesaroni & Piccaluga, 2016; Rubens, Spigarelli, Cavicchi, & Rinaldi, 2017). Further, it has expanded beyond science, technology, and engineering faculties to include the humanities, arts and social sciences. (Nelles & Vorley, 2010). However, the patterns of community engagement continue to be highly varied by universities and faculties (Goldstein, Bergman, & Maier, 2013; Nelles & Vorley, 2010) and universities still face significant challenges in fulfilling the third mission (Jones & de Zubielqui, 2017; Meissner & Shmatko, 2017; Rubens et al., 2017; Secundo, Perez, Martinaitis, & Leitner, 2017).

The challenges have been linked to both institutional- and individual-level considerations (e.g., Cesaroni & Piccaluga, 2016; Chau, Gilman, & Serbanica, 2017; Jones & de Zubielqui, 2017; Meissner & Shmatko, 2017; Sánchez-Barrioluengo, 2014). However, the bulk of existing studies focus on how institutional-level dynamics such as universities’ strategies, structures, leadership, culture, capabilities and resources influence the achievement of third mission objectives (Kapetaniou & Lee, 2017; Martin & Turner, 2010; Nelles & Vorley, 2010; Sánchez-Barrioluengo, 2014). For instance, Rolfo and Finardi (2014) compared the third mission of two Italian universities – a specialist engineering school and a generalist university to explain differences in their organization of third mission activities and the attitudes of research staff to these activities. They found that a technological university, which focuses on teaching and research only in Engineering and Architecture had a more widespread culture of collaboration with non-academic external actors than a generalist university (teaching and research in all fields but Engineering and Architecture).

Further, while some scholars support the view that the third mission should be an integral part of the mission of a contemporary (Nelles & Vorley, 2010), many others question the merits and implications of third mission on the core teaching and research missions of universities (Sánchez-Barrioluengo, 2014). This debate has produced a stream of conceptual and empirical studies, which strongly suggests that the jury is still out regarding the pursuit of third mission ideals. For instance, Sánchez-Barrioluengo (2014) argues that the notion that universities should become centres of excellence in all three missions is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model that is premised on the belief that universities have homogenous and uniform capacities to perform and contribute to all three missions. This model also downplays the concept that universities are shaped by their historical identity, scientific specialization, research capabilities, financial resources, locations and social connectivity (Cesaroni & Piccaluga, 2016; Vico, Serger, Wise, & Benner, 2017).

Recent evidence from Vico et al. (2017) show that universities have heterogenous capacities (Martin & Turner, 2010) and contribute differently to the three missions - some are better suited to contribute to research while others to the third mission. Sánchez-Barrioluengo (2014) also reported evidence of tension among the three missions noting that while research and third mission “ride together”, teaching is negative to both. Nevertheless, Nelles and Vorley (2010) argue that treating the three missions as mutually constitutive is essential for the modern university. Moreover, it is not uncommon for faculty members to be classified as either ‘traditional’ scientists committed to the ideals of open science or as ‘entrepreneurial’ scientists who are more receptive to third mission ideals (Lam, 2011; Watermeyer, 2015). This ongoing scholarly debate mirrors the practical challenges university administrators face in crafting policies and strategies to effectively implement the third mission.

It seems that the decision to engage with third mission ideals is an individual one (Rubens et al., 2017), therefore, understanding individual faculty members’ predispositions or attitudes is essential. Although studies of motivations shed some light, a deeper understanding of academic identity (Lam, 2011; Watermeyer, 2015) with third mission ideals will help in identifying and supporting those individuals that are most likely to embrace it (Rubens et al., 2017). Thus, detecting and acknowledging discernable differences among faculty members in their predisposition to the third mission can facilitate more nuanced third mission policies and strategies.

Study & Data

This study empirically examines individual-level factors or characteristics that may discriminate between faculty members who embrace the third mission and those who are unlikely to support it. The data for this study is drawn from the Survey of Knowledge Exchange Activity by UK Academics (2012-2015). This is the second iteration of the survey, which was first administered in 2009. This survey has been widely used to study academic entrepreneurship (e.g., Abreu, Demirel, Grinevich, & Karataş-Özkan, 2016; Abreu & Grinevich, 2013, 2017; Hughes et al., 2016). The second iteration of this survey covering 2012-2015 generated 18,177 completed responses, which represents about 13.9% response rate. Detail descriptions of the survey design and methodology is provided in Hughes et al. (2016).

Using this data, we tested several hypotheses including: (1) whether academics from the natural and physical sciences are more likely than their social sciences counterparts to embrace the third mission, (2) whether academics who are engaged in basic research as opposed to applied or user-focused research will be less likely to support the third mission, (3) whether age (older vs. younger), gender (male vs. female), and academic rank (junior vs. senior) influence support for the third mission, and (4) whether those with experience working with industry will be more supportive of the third mission. The data was analyzed using a series ordered logit regressions and a composite ordinary least squares regression involving a composite measure constructed from several statement pertaining to academic engagement.

Results & Contribution

The results of our study indicate that there is a wide variation in the attitudes of academics concerning the pursuit of third mission ideals by universities. In particular, academics who are not research active are strongly inclined to support the third mission even more than those engaged in user-focused research. Research-intensive academics are least likely to support the third mission. With respect to gender, age, and rank, we observe that female and younger scholars are equivocal in their attitudes to the third mission while senior scholars are less likely to embrace the third mission. This raises the question as to what role, if any, should senior, research-intensive academics who tend to control more research resources and have more clout in decision-making vis-à-vis their junior counterparts play with respect to the third mission. Conversely, does the lack of resources hinder junior or early career academics from engaging in the third mission. Further empirical analysis of the links between the reward system and commitment to the third mission may be warranted. Academics’ industry experience is inconsistent with regards to the third mission since those with private sector work experience are more inclined to support the third mission while those with non-profit experience less likely to support the third mission. This raises the interesting possibility of whether third mission activities need to include social activities and not only economic activities.

This study contributes to ongoing discourses on the third mission in two key ways. First, we observe that inactive researchers, who are generally considered teaching faculty and overlooked in third mission discussions, have considerably more favourable dispositions than research-focused faculties even among those that undertake applied or user-focused research. From a practical perspective, this finding suggests that universities may have a source of untapped resources in support of their third mission goals. From a research perspective, it is consistent with the notion of third mission activities being broadened beyond the traditional view of the commercialization of science via formal methods such as patents and licensing (Abreu et al., 2016; Abreu & Grinevich, 2013, 2017) to include other entrepreneurial activities (Siegel & Wright, 2015). Second, the wide variation in faculty attitudes toward the third mission supports the view that universities are heterogeneous entities (e.g., Cesaroni & Piccaluga, 2016; Vico et al., 2017) and that indeed the “one-size-fits-all” model (Sánchez-Barrioluengo, 2014) maybe counterproductive to the achievement of third mission goals (Rubens et al., 2017). Recognizing these differences can help guide recruitment, compensation, and incentive policies of universities, the nature of collaboration and interactions with non-academic actors within society, the nature of academic programs offered, and even the students targeted or accepted by universities. These insights may also help universities overcome the nagging challenge of how best to allocate resources and organize their third mission activities in order to achieve their objectives.