Responding to fluctuating engineering competence demand in a network university model

Heikki Koponen
Aalto University

Jani Romanoff
Aalto University

Eero Eloranta
Aalto University

Abstract
The Finnish system of higher engineering education is challenged by the fluctuating global economy, accelerating technology cycles and an environment of scarcity of the public funding of universities. While historically a typical policy response to shifting educational needs of society has been to establish universities, faculties or study programmes, this response might be insufficient in the resource-constrained and rapidly changing innovation environment of the future. Rather, as the competence demands of industry and society as a whole shift, it is important for universities to be able to accommodate newly arising needs in a timely manner by leveraging existing resources and educational competencies in a new way.

The current paper outlines a Finnish collaborative network university, the Finnish Institute of Technology, founded in 2017 to respond to a surge in engineering competence demand in various industries. A variety of actions have been initiated to increase collaborative ties both between member universities, inside individual universities and in collaboration with industrial companies. Overall, universities have launched a variety of cooperative academic programmes with a focus on changes in engineering competence demand created by the development of the industrial landscape. The case study at hand depicts several of those actions as well as the mechanisms by which an impact to the challenge at hand has been pursued. The case study has been located to southwestern Finland, which has faced extremely rapid growth, to which classical university policies have not been able to respond.

Firstly, a minor study program in the field of project business management is given as an example of a newly founded initiative collaboratively designed and run by faculty of four different universities: many of the heavy industries booming in southwestern Finland are largely project-based, so management of those projects has been one of the most natural starting points. Secondly, the developments in marine engineering and naval architecture education is brought to light as it is an inherently inter-disciplinary field, well suited to a network university environment. In the current initiative, an inter-disciplinary summer school with strong industrial ties has been set up. Naturally, collaboration between the programmes is included in the case studies.

The results of this study go to demonstrate that a network of multiple universities can be an effective instrument in responding to rapidly shifting competence demands. The lead time in launching educational initiatives in a new geographical are exceptionally short, and university collaboration has provided meaningful avenues for university teachers to modernise education and the study opportunities for students are increased by order of magnitude. The network university model has faced challenges in overcoming administrative and other restrictions posed by incumbent practices and processes of universities. However, these have been overcome by collaborative actions taken by talented university administrations.