Regional Development and the Role of the University

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

 “In order to be competitive in the globalizing knowledge economy, the OECD countries need to invest in their innovation systems at the national and regional levels…As key sources of knowledge and innovation, higher education institutions (HEIs) can be central to this process.” (OECD, 2007, p. 11).

VALENCIA, SPAIN — And so it began. A three-day conference here in Valencia, hosted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and several other partner organizations. Interesting in many respects, for us from North America, because the world is looking at capturing what the US has always had an ability to mine: the research and development of American universities and private development. Last week, Alex Usher talked at length about this issue (Time Running Out on an American Success Story), and happenstance would have it that I am attending an international conference on his precise thesis: the emergence of the research institution beyond the United States.

As Alex noted, the American research university is the envy of every country. “Everybody–and I mean everybody–wants one of these,” he stated. From my experience, I can confirm his exclamation. Everyone indeed does.

The conference was the capstone, to some degree, of a 14-institution case study conducted over the past three years by OECD. OECD teams, made up of research, higher education, and economic experts, conducted week-long case studies of institutions in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Korea, Mexico, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. And the United States—by any measure the leader in the linkage of higher education and regional development —was conspicuously absent from the list. Apparently OECD, with help from NCHEMS in Boulder, couldn’t muster up an institution or regional system to take part. Unfortunately for us, this is both embarrassing and typical: the US continues to show it doesn’t care about much beyond its borders, unless it involves oil.

Regardless, there was much to learn from the plethora of information and expertise at this conference, attended by over 250 people from around the world. Canadians were well represented by Robert Best of the AUCC and several participants in the study from Atlantic Canada. The US was represented by such luminaries as Dewayne Matthews of Lumina Foundation for Education and Aims McGuinness of NCHEMS. But no US case study.

The title of the conference was “Globally Competitive, Locally Engaged: Higher Education and Regions,” and it was offered by one of the opening speakers, I believe John Goddard of the University of Newcastle, that “Globalisation” should be changed to “localization,” because that ultimately is the reality: things must happen at the local and regional level if geo-political areas have a shot at competing on the global stage. And Christoffer Taxell of Finland was quick to note that education was the most efficient way to make these changes.

But the question is “how” to make this change. In the US, we have seen dozens and dozens of models where institutions are directly involved of the industrial and technical development of the area. Count the number of research parks being built on campuses these days, and you’ll quickly see the trend. Even at our local university, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, the university has just constructed a research park with brand new, state-of-the-art buildings for corporate entities to fill in order to further the connection between the university and the private sector.

The US has learned, through an incredible amount of fiscal support over the last 50-60 years, that the nexus of research and universities spurs economic development. The National Science Foundation (NSF) produces a spin-off report each year, as does the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), because research developed at our top research institutions “spins off” into industry and the marketplace. The number of patents developed by researchers at US institutions is mind-boggling. The University of California system alone generated 390 patents in 2005. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the infamous Cambridge, Mass, earned 136 patents. The top 10 research institutions in the US, as measured by patent development, recorded 1,274 patents in 2005. That’s a lot of research with regional impact (click here for source).

US patent development was keenly noted at this conference in several presentations, and the patent is clearly used as an indicator of spinoff and regional development, although it can be argued whether patents always convert to regional development. But the US has largely done this through an incredible capacity to fund research at institutions of higher education. My former employer, SRI International, the original “dotcom,” was once better known as “Stanford Research Institute.” Today it is an international organization of 2,000 people with development of $411 million in FY2006. That, as well, is a lot of regional development in a place called silicon valley, perhaps the most well-known “region” in technology.

The nations involved in this study want to know the secret to America’s technological and regional development, even though we well know that the development in the US is anything but consistent and equitable across the country. But how do countries ramp up this development? Although it wasn’t overtly stated during the three days, the answer, to a large degree, is “dinero.” But in the success stories unveiled here in Valencia, the role of the university as a convenor seemed equally important; the bridge between government and industry. Institutions that work to play this role seem to become important conduits in the development process. In all our talk of higher education, affordability, and equity, the issue of the institution as a major player in regional development is often backburnered in many communities, and, I would argue, especially in the United States and Canada. Now that there exists a major international cooperative looking at this issue, and the promise of an annual roundtable discussion to keep the discussion going, let’s follow this tack and see what it bears in the next several years.

During the interim, let’s hope that US will take part in the second round of the OECD study to begin sometime in the next year.

More information about this conference, with links to official downloads of papers and publications associated with the project, can be downloaded at the OECD website.

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