Emerging topic: The role of universities in regional development - context and challenges in Georgia

This article is based on results of a study conducted by the Georgian HERE Team in 2017. Research projects form significant part of HERE activities in Georgia: alongside with translations of major policy documents and the development of guidelines and readers, eleven research projects have been carried out by Georgian HERE in the last nine years. Some of them have been followed-up by specific actions, such as changes in institutional accreditation standards and CBHE projects (For example, “The Problem of Plagiarism and its Perception in Georgia”).  This article discusses the role of regional universities, which was the theme of a cluster monitoring meeting with regional universities (April 2018) and has inspired a CBHE project proposal, submitted under the 2019 call by the Akaki Tsereteli State University and involving all HEIs outside of the capital.

 

The role of universities has evolved during the last decades. Once primarily focused on teaching and research within a universal community of knowledge creating institutions, universities are now expected to expand their contribution to the social, economic and cultural development of the communities in which they operate. This so called “third mission” is distinct from their traditional roles (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 1999).
 

The fact that in modern Europe, the region rather than the state has become the most common spatial model of development has largely contributed to the emergence of the third mission. Within this spatial model, the term "region" has a double meaning. At a macro-level, it is a sphere of interaction between states (e.g. Eastern Europe or Central Asia). At a micro-level, it is a local unit within a state. The two models are interconnected: it is their harmonious and inclusive development that creates the basis for effective supranational models of knowledge dissemination.

Pursuing the “third mission” is a difficult task for European universities, however. Higher Education Institutions face a number of contradictory challenges such as:

  • Finding an exclusive niche in a context of growing demand for diversified products;
  • Increasing the return on public investment while ensuring their own financial independence;
  • Competing with private actors while creating effective cooperation models with them;
  • Developing a long-term vision while dealing with fluctuating current demand;
  • Finding a balance between local and national needs in the job market whilst addressing international trends.

Although the "Third Mission" of Higher Education holds a visible place in political and academic discourses, a precise understanding of its forms and types is still missing (PACEC, 2009). Little is also known about its variations by specific contexts, countries and regions. Such variations may depend on various factors such as the characteristics of the university population, HEI traditions, national/institutional set-ups, regional factors, etc. (Trippl et al, 2014).

 

A recent study by the National Erasmus+ Office/HERE Team in Georgia identifies some key dimensions of the third mission implementation in Georgia. Specifically, case studies of two regional universities provide an overview of the main barriers for increased engagement of universities in regional development as viewed by different stakeholders: academia, local and central government, private sector and donors.

According to the respondents, the third mission of universities has high importance in developing economies like Georgia, where universities are considered as relatively stable institutions that should play the leading role in producing, transmitting and accumulating knowledge.

The results of the study clearly illustrate the need for intensifying the role of universities in regional development given that:

  • The share of applied research is small and loosely linked to regional priorities; 
  • Universities fail to both meet the current demand and anticipate the future demand of the local job market;
  • University ‘extension’ (such as incubators, museums, libraries) only contribute marginally to the economic, social and cultural development of communities. 

An important precondition for a more efficient performance of the third mission is creating a supportive institutional environment that could build the capacity of universities for proactive re-positioning as regional actors and at the same time increase the potential of industry and government to absorb university products and services.

An analysis of the diverse viewpoints expressed by the stakeholders illustrated the need for:

  • Transforming the vision of the role of universities in regional development

The role of universities in strategic regional development documents is formulated narrowly and is limited to supplying resources for the job market. Despite the fact that setting and meeting the local strategic objectives require interventions in many areas of social and economic development, higher education institutions are rarely considered as key strategic partners to achieve these objectives.

  • Improving communication between the actors

Regional development agencies, local government and universities rarely communicate with each other and fail to synchronize missions, strategies and action plans. Representatives of academia are not aware of regional development plans. More intensive cross-institutional relations are required within the industry / government / academia triangle in the context of regional development.

  • Creating explicit operational plans and division of responsibilities

The roles of the respective actors (sectorial ministries, regional development agencies, local self-government bodies, private sector) are not clearly defined and should be translated into specific action plans and resource distribution schemes.

  • Building trust

Universities are rarely considered as important agents of change in regional systems. Local government representatives in most cases consider them as mere beneficiaries of regional development programs rather than as strategic partners.

  • Defining adequate responses in terms of university HR management

Representatives of academia are engaged in regional development programs as individual contractors rather than as organizations. According to the stakeholders concerned (government agencies, donors), the main reasons are the weakness of organizational processes in universities and their lack of financial and administrative flexibility.

  • Sharing knowledge on best practices

Regional universities consider that their contribution to local development could be enhanced through better networking with first-tier universities in the country. Clustering universities and research schools could facilitate the diffusion of knowledge and a more efficient use of scarce human and material resources.

  • Devising proper incentives

In the opinion of respondents, the engagement of universities in regional development can be stimulated by four main groups of incentives:  

1. Dedicated funding schemes for stimulating specific projects on regional development, aimed at  supporting local universities;

2. Networking schemes such as regional HEI associations or cooperation schemes of universities belonging to different tiers;

3. Technical assistance aiming at improving organizational processes and research capacity of regional universities;

4. Accountability standards enabling the design of performance indicators of universities in accordance with local needs and priorities.

Whilst the above findings are based on the opinion of local actors in Georgia, we believe they are largely relevant in other settings. Thus, we hope the study will contribute to a broader discussion on reshaping the mission of Higher Education institutions for a more responsible and proactive engagement in local development.

 

This article was written by Tamar Bregvadze and Ketevan Gurchiani, both of which are members of the Georgian HERE team.

Ketevan Gurchiani studied classics at Tbilisi State University in the Republic of Georgia and at the Albert-Ludwigs University in Germany. She currently works as an Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Religion at Ilia State University in Tbilisi and is a member of the Institute of Philosophy. She is also a chair of board of trustees at the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD). She is a member of the National Team of Higher Education Reform Experts (HERE) from 2009 and holds the position of a chairperson from 2015. She has been selected as a SPHERE Advisory Group member in 2018.

Tamar Bregvadze teaches education policy and education research at Ilia State University, Georgia. An overarching theme of her research is quality management in education. For several years she served as a member for Higher Education authorization and accreditation boards. She has worked as a consultant for the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia and as a researcher in local and international research teams on projects related to various aspects of higher education management. Tamar also served as a consultant for Teachers Professional Development Center, National Center for Quality Enhancement and various education institutions on quality management and strategic planning issues.