The role of universities in regional innovation has evolved over the last twenty years. Universities were once regarded as focusing on two key roles, teaching and research, which were exogenous to, and independent from, the innovative activities of firms and other organisations. The triple helix model of university-industry-government interactions and the emerging literature on university engagement, have pointed to a third role performed by universities as regional innovation organisers and animators of regional economic and social development. Sitting alongside their traditional roles in education and research, yet, re-shaping them, the third role of universities has been conceptualised in the triple helix model as hybrid in nature, overlapping with the roles traditionally performed by industry and the state. Being co-equal with industry and the state, universities, in this view, may perform a generative role in driving economic development, rather than being mere providers of research inputs, subordined to industry.
The university engagement literature speaks of a broad-based, developmental contribution made by universities to regional innovation, underpinned by a range of 'push' and 'pull' forces. These forces, which include government and industry demands for greater responsiveness to the practical problems of industry, the regionalisation of production and community pressure on universities to support renewal, have, increasingly, linked universities to place. Universities, thus, perform broad, deep transformative functions in shaping regional innovation environments, through incubators, science parks, spin offs and collaborative research centres, as well as supporting regional knowledge needs, animating associative regional governance and fostering the development of supportive regional cultural norms of openness to learning, trust and cooperation. While these developments have been heralded in the international literature, little attention has been devoted to exploring the nature of the third role performed by universities in the Australian setting, and there has been little explanation of variations in the roles performed by universities in different regional settings. This study has sought to fill that gap.
The dissertation undertakes an analysis of the role performed by Australian universities in the development of regional innovation systems. It analyses the third role of universities in regional development, as discussed in the triple helix and university engagement literatures and draws a distinction between generative and developmental roles performed by universities. The generative role of universities, grounded in the triple helix literature, focused on entrepreneurial, knowledge capitalisation initiatives that create, or generate, growth. The developmental role of universities, while accepting the importance of entrepreneurial activities, suggests a broader focus on the adaptation of teaching and research to be regionally-relevant, for example, through a stronger emphasis on student recruitment from the proximate region and graduate retention therein.
Universities were specified as performing either a generative or developmental role with reference to four key elements of regional systems that emerged from the literature. These elements were: regional agglomeration; the availability of a stock of capital, which, in regard to the role of universities, pointed to human capital, in particular; an associative governance framework and supportive regional cultural norms. A distinction was also drawn between the primary and secondary regional contexts of university engagement, to obtain a richer perspective of the nature of regionality in university roles. The primary regional context was the commonly understood proximate regional space within which the university engaged with its community. Secondary regional contexts referred to university engagement initiatives in other regional environments, beyond the primary regional context.
In explaining the role universities played in the development of regional systems, a number of factors relating to universities and their regions were considered. These factors were: the orientation of universities to regional engagement; the history of university-region linkages; the degree of complementarity between the research strengths of a university and regional knowledge needs; the presence of key champions of university-region engagement; the nature of the regional industry base and political and economic conditions. The research design explored other possible explanations, and a number of additional factors emerged from the case studies, relating to regional and university characteristics.
Using this analytical framework, three comparative case studies of non core-metropolitan Australian universities were undertaken, which sought to capture the institutional and regional diversity in the Australian higher education system. The case studies, which involved over a hundred semi-structured interviews and extensive document review, centred on the University of Western Sydney, a peri-urban university, located in a predominantly services-oriented regional economy; the University of Wollongong, a provincial city university, located in a region dominated by manufacturing, but in transition towards a services industry base; and Charles Sturt University, Riverina campus, a rural university located in an agricultural region.
The findings of the study pointed to significant differences in the breadth and depth of the roles performed by the three universities. The predominant focus of the third role performed by the universities studied was developmental in orientation, consistent with the university engagement literature; although, there were signals of an emerging generative role performed by the University of Wollongong, consistent with the triple helix literature. The roles performed by the universities in regional agglomeration and in supporting the development of regional cultural norms were limited, but there was stronger evidence that the universities were shaping the innovation environments of primary, and, to a limited degree, secondary, regional contexts, through their contributions to human capital formation and associative governance.
A number of factors explained the key variations in university roles that emerged across the three universities. These factors were: the university's orientation to regional engagement; the history of university-region linkages; the nature of the regional industry base, including the orientation of SMEs to engagement with universities, the understanding of innovation in the region and individualistic regional business cultures; and the level of political support. Economic conditions did not have marked influence on the role performed by the universities. In turn, these factors are underpinned by the degree of complementarity between the research strengths of the university and regional knowledge needs and the role of champions. A number of additional explanatory factors were identified in the case studies. These factors were: the perceptions of some academic staff of regional work; the R&D structure of the agricultural industries; and the geographical location, size and sectoral diversity of regions. Overarching all of these factors was the competitive funding environment of universities, which created a tension between regionality and national and international linkages.
The key contributions to knowledge from the study are insights regarding the relevance of the triple helix and university engagement literature in the Australian setting; an enhanced awareness of variations in the roles performed by Australian universities; an improved understanding of the reasons why universities perform particular roles in regional innovation systems; an appreciation of the explanations for variation in the roles performed by universities in different regional settings; and a number of novel features of the conceptual framework developed for the study.
The study raises a number of implications for Australian higher education and innovation policy. It is argued that policy settings relating to university-industry linkages need to be contextualised by regional, as well as national, developmental priorities, and supported by incentives for local engagement by universities. This, in turn, calls for improved regional coordination and regional priority setting that is articulated with national R&D priorities. Finally, the use of triple helix mechanisms warrants fine-tuning to support local/regional engagement between universities and firms.