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Can regions shape university performance?

Mabel Sánchez-Barrioluengo

During the last twenty years researchers and policymakers have focused their discourses on the important role that universities play in stimulating the development of regions under the umbrella concept of “knowledge economies” [i]. Universities contribute to the region generating research and consultancy income, embedding knowledge in students and employees, upgrading regional business environments and potentially improving this process of regional value capture [ii]. This approach has emphasized the vision of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) as active drivers of regional economic growth and innovation policy change.


To fulfill these expectations universities have embarked on many activities, which have increased their complexity and the necessity to redefine their roles. At regional level, HEIs do not only contribute to creation of skilled human capital, but also generate technological capital and knowledge stock. This conjecture promotes university involvement in regional economic development in addition to the traditional tripartite missions of teaching, research and transfer activities. But, is the expectation of universities engaging in all of these roles simultaneously realistic? Should the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model be prevalent in the Higher Education Sector, even more in times of economic crisis? More specifically, are there any differences between particular capabilities universities seek to contribute to their regions? Is there space for alternative university models?


To solve these questions it is important to ‘turn the tables’ and adopt an alternative perspective where not only university influences the region, but where regions shape university performance as well [iii]. This means that activities of universities are significantly influenced by the context and the environment in which the university is geographically located and by other actors involved in the innovation system. Adopting this view, we are assuming that if universities want to fulfill their roles, they need to increase their interaction with non-academic agents at regional level. This allows the university to build its own strategy of differentiation and specialization based on its specific capacities as well as taking into account the needs of the environment. Following the notation of the European Commission, we propose that this allows HEIs to create their own Smart Specialization Strategy (S3) and become drivers of innovation policy change and economic growth under the Europe 2020 Strategy. Even more important is the adaptation of different policies to emphasize the role of universities and their strategic priorities at regional level.


But is there any case where a region has shaped university’s strategy? We are going to present the case of the Mondragon University (MU) as an example where the university has exploited the characteristics of the environment as a competitive advantage to emphasize its specific regional role. MU is a cooperative university, that is, an autonomous association for voluntary cooperation with a view to preserve values such as self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equality, equity and solidarity. It is located in Guipúzcoa, one of the three regions in the Basque Country (Spain). Founded in 1997, it is part of one of the largest cooperative groups, called Mondragon Corporation. MU was born from the demand side: to address the weaknesses of Mondragon Cooperative Model.


Under the specific characteristics of the Basque Science and Technology policy, the contribution of MU to its regional innovation system has been mainly through skilled workers with high levels of labor market participation and employment with the right qualifications, as well as through life-long education courses up-skilling employees for new tasks at the cooperatives [iv]. The development of research highly oriented to companies’ needs allows MU to have a large number of research collaborative programs with different firms operating in the Basque Country. The development of this strategy takes into account other agents in the innovation system and ensures interaction activities. MU framework for action is agreed with all the agents involved in order to respond to the challenges and needs of the environment concerning education and knowledge transfer [v].


Recent news articles [vi, vii] pointed out the case of MU as an alternative to the state-funded public university. But is this case exportable outside the socioeconomic characteristics and the historical background of the Basque context? Is the case of Silicon Valley in San Francisco or the MIT in Massachusetts transferable? Mondragon can be understood as an example of regional needs guiding a specialization strategy, and the university becoming active actor contributing to its region.


Thus, this approach creates a virtuous circle where universities are understood as drivers of innovation policy change and, at the same time, regional innovation policy guides university’s strategy for specialization.

Mabel Sánchez-Barrioluengo is a PhD student at INGENIO (CSIC-UPV) in Spain. More information on her research can be found here and here.


The first draft of this work was presented at the workshop ‘Regional Innovation Policy Dynamics: Actors, Agency and Learning’ in Manchester (UK), 23-24 September 2013.



[i] OECD (2007). Higher Education and Regions. Globally Competitive, Locally Engaged. OECD. Paris.

[ii] Benneworth, P. & Hospers, G. (2007). “The new economic geography of old industrial regions: universities as global- local pipelines” Environment and Planning C: Government & Policy, 25(5), pp. 779-802.

[iii] Casper, S. (2013). “The spill-over theory reversed: The impact of regional economies on the commercialization of university science” Research Policy, 42(8), pp. 1313-1324.

[iv] OECD (2011). OECD Reviews of Regional Innovation: Basque Country, Spain.

[v] Wright, S.; Greenwood, D. & Boden, R. (2011). “Report on a fi eld visit to Mondragón University: a cooperative experience/experiment”. Learning and Teaching, 4(3), pp. 38-56.

[vi] Tremlett, G. (2013). “Mondragon: Spain’s giant co-operative where times are hard but few go bust”. The Guardian 7 March 2013.

[vii] Matthews, D. (2013). “Inside a cooperative university”. The Higher Education Debate 29 August 2013.


This post was originally published on Europe of Knowledge blog.


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