Bridging gaps in higher education studies: internal structure and demand conditions mediating university third mission performance

Author: Mabel Sánchez-Barrioluengo, Ingenio (CSIC-UPV)

bridging the gapMore than 30 years after the recommendation of the OECD Centre for Education Research and Innovation regarding how universities could best increase their socioeconomic contributions (Centre for Educational Research and Innovation 1982), there is still no consensus between researchers and policy-makers in regards to what the best practices to achieve this goal are. It is clear that there is increasing policy pressure on universities to behave in very similar ways, and to copy supposedly good practices of excellent and world class universities.

Nevertheless, it is also clear that the limits of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ university model are rapidly being reached. This idea is based upon the criticisms of the homogeneous institutional models where “strategies that work for a particular region may not necessarily delivery in another” (Rodríguez-Pose 2013). Universities face increasingly diverse pressures from policy-makers to contribute to human capital, innovation, societal inclusion, integration, security and economic development. They are thus forced to balance between making their knowledge most immediately useful in the context of these demands, and ensuring that they have the intellectual resources to serve their core goals of both teaching and research (Sánchez-Barrioluengo 2014).

One increasingly ubiquitous contempory mission for universities has been the promotion of university-industry/society collaboration, the so-called ‘third mission’, in addition to the traditional university missions of teaching and research. There have been a vast range of subsidised initiatives and infrastructure implementation in order to promote university engagement with non-academic agents.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, universities have faced considerable core budget reductions, and have responded by increasing their competitive and contractual funding (Dominicis, Pérez and Fernández-Zubieta 2011). As part of this, many universities have ramped up their engagement with non-academic partners to complement increasingly scarce public resources. As universities place more emphasis upon their relevance and responsiveness to national, regional and local needs, there has also been a progressive ‘institutionalisation’ of these interactions within universities formal structures (Benneworth, de Boer and Jongbloed 2015).

It has become increasingly common to identify ideal structure types for universities in order to optimize their engagement processes, raising the spectre of a homogenization. This process fails to take into account contextual heterogeneity in terms of a universities’ internal capabilities as well as specific regional/local societal needs.

In my recent visit to the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies I have been collaborating with Paul Benneworth to bridge these gaps. We are seeking to understand how a universities’ structural configurations affect how they produce third mission outputs, and how this is in turn affected by the kinds of regional environments within which universities exist.

We strive to highlight a universities’ internal diversity by focusing on different elements of their structural engagement configurations, such as institutional strategies, administrative machinery, support structures and academic incentives. It is, after all, these elements which are the most amenable to control by university managers (McCormack, Propper and Smith 2014).

Our study has focused on the UK, which has specifically embraced commercialisation as a HEI’s performance goal when related to funding levels (PACEC/ Centre for Business Research (CBR) 2009). Results suggest there is value in trying to measure how university internal structure affects regional engagement behaviour in three ways.

Firstly, “formal factors” that correspond to a university’s organizational units are explicitly responsible for promoting technology transfer and intensifying its focus on turning their proprietary technology into economic opportunities.

Second, among these factors the ‘steering core’ (leadership and strategy of each university) and the ‘administrative machinery’ (rules, procedures and incentives that exist at the institutional level to catalyse knowledge transfer activities and social engagement) both influence university performance. Conversely, increasing the number of researchers (that is the ‘academic heartland’) involved in university-society relationships does not necessarily correspond to increased regional interactions.

Thirdly, our findings suggest that this approach sees universities magnifying the benefits of proximity, as the easiest way of researchers to obtain rewards under such circumstances are to be involved in engagement activities with the closest agents.

We interpret these results as a specifically strategic question of identifying the appropriate strategic choices to maximise the institutional outputs of any university in a particular regional context. But given the urgency of the ‘impact agenda’, it is important to acknowledge that there are many institution models for optimising that impact.

Our finding that institutional structure does make a difference, raises an important future research question regarding how institutional structure affects the creation of impact across different systems (contrasting the UK for example with Spain) and also reflecting different contexts.

Our future analysis will more explicitly include regional dimensions in order to understand how particular contextual characteristics shape a universities’ influence on societal needs.


Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (1982) The university and the community: the problems of changing relationships. Paris: OECD‑CERI

Rodríguez-Pose, A. (2013). “Do institutions matter for regional development?” Regional Studies 47 (7), 1034–1047.

Sánchez-Barrioluengo, M. (2014). “Articulating the ‘three-missions’ in Spanish universities”. Research Policy, 43: 1760-1773

Dominicis, L.; Pérez, S.E. and Fernández-Zubieta, A. (2011) European university funding and financial autonomy. A study on the degree of diversification of university budget and the share of competitive funding. JCR-IPTS Scientific and Technical Reports

Benneworth, P.; de Boer, H. and Jongbloed, B. (2015) “Between good intentions and urgent stakeholder pressures: institutionalizing the universities’ third mission in the Swedish context”. European Journal of Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/21568235.2015.1044549

PACEC/ Centre for Business Research (CBR) (2009) Evaluation of the effectiveness and role of HEFCE/OSI third stream funding: Culture Change and Embedding Capacity in the Higher Education Sector Towards Economic Impact.

Report to HEFCE by PACEC and the Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge. 2009/15.

McCormack, J.; Propper, C. and Smith, S. (2014). “Herding cats? Management and university performance” The Economic Journal. DOI: 10.1111/ecoj.12105


About Mabel Sánchez-Barrioluengo

Photo Mabel Mabel Sánchez Barrioluengo is a junior researcher in Ingenio (CSIC-UPV). She has done a 3-months visit to CHEPS with an EU-SPRI PhD Circulation Award. She graduated in Statistics at the University of Salamanca and University Miguel Hernandez (Spain) and obtained her PhD at the Technical University of Valencia in 2015. Her main areas of research are higher education, university-society relationship, human capital and labor economics. Mabel has published some works in international journals like Research Policy, Science and Public Policy or Scientomentrics. Currently she is participating in an project analyzing the contribution of higher education to innovation capacity in the EU.

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