How can universities create future innovators?

Author: Nadine Zeeman

Current measures that aim to capture the contribution of universities to innovation capacity usually focus on the HEI research activities.  But there is a growing recognition that this only tells part of the story, and in particular we are losing sight of the ways in which students human capital also contribute to innovation capacity.

It is intuitive when we think about the ways in which universities are driving economic development and innovation: it is the universities who play an important role in educating students to become the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. For those that don’t set up their own companies, it is students who create and bring new knowledge, ideas and technologies to industry.

If this has been true throughout recent decades, it is becoming more urgent given the growing skill deficits and growth deficits within Europe.  Higher Education has a clear role to provide human capital that Europe needs to create jobs and economic growth.

The overall narrative has certainly been recognized by the European Union (EU) that wants to increase the contribution of European higher education to innovation capacity (European Commission, 2010; 2013, p.3).  At the same time, there is an acceptance that we do not necessarily have the measures to hand to capture those human capital innovation contributions.

Universities attempts to respond to this challenge reflected in their massive expansion in recent years to create workforces that have the skills to compete in a knowledge-based economy (Levy and Hopkins, 2010, p. 14). This context changes constantly and therefore learning how to learn is as important as technical skills in isolation (CEDEFOP, 2008, p.4).

And there is clearly a concern that universities have not adopted their teaching approaches to the new environment (Marmolejo & Puukka, 2006). So how can universities contribute to innovation capacity to respond to the skills deficit and the challenges of the knowledge-based economy?

Current approaches tend to be restricted to research-based analysis, such as using measures of patenting and publications (Veugelers, 2014).  However, such an approach too limited, as it is widely recognised that innovation is driven by far more than research and development alone (David & Metcalfe, 2007, p. 3).

In our Eunivation report we have been mapping the various ways in which both teaching and research can contribute to innovation capacity, as much via the via human capital spill-overs that make knowledge more readily available to innovators as by formal knowledge exchange activities between firms and universities.

These areas have been dealt with by previous indicator sets. One of these have been developed within the European Research Area. Several performance indicators have been developed (Den Hertog, Jager, Vankan, Te Velde, Verldkamp, Aksnes, Sivertsen, Van Leeuwen & Van Wijk, 2014). The most relevant indicator set in this respect is that of the Innovation Union Scoreboard (IUS).   This indicator set compromises a total of 25 indicators, of which around 12 could be related to activities of universities. The diagram below shows these performance indicators of the Innovation Union Scoreboard on the knowledge transfer and human capital dimensions.



Figure 1 Overview KT and HC indicators IUS, Source:

This emphasises our argument that there are plenty of indicators available for but not for human capital measures. Therefore, to meet the demands of the European Commission to measure human capital contributions it is necessary to develop appropriate indicators for this process.

Our Interim Report identifies two ways that human capital spill-overs can contribute to innovation, when a student enters the labour market and brings in the knowledge obtained from the university. The first relates to the direct education of students who add to the total stock of human capital when they enter the labour market. The second type of spill-over is when universities enrich the overall human capital in a place and generate further labour market effects.

Universities may contribute directly to these processes in various ways:

  1. Education on entrepreneurship creates long term benefits to society and the economy, with students developing skills including creativity, self-learning and lifelong learning.
  2. Universities may be able to involve businesses and other external parties (such as government of community organisations) in curriculum design, allowing them to bring in their own understandings of what kinds of problems future graduates will face and therefore the appropriate skills needed to address those problems.
  3. An international environment also increases the skill pool to stimulate innovation. Students can benefit from becoming exposed to new environments, and in these new environments can create new ways of thinking that stimulate innovation. Partnerships with other universities abroad may facilitate student exchanges.
  4. University activities can further increase human capital in the workforce pool. With workers needing to update their skills to respond to changing environments, universities may contribute directly to this by providing lifelong learning within corporate environments; even greater benefits can be achieved by building synergies between workers and students in teaching communities.
  5. Mobility programs also benefit the workforce pool. Students bring in knowledge that help non-academic partners to solve difficulties in their current innovation, and vice versa. Through working in external contexts, students gain a first-hand understanding of research applications and the challenges facing firms, government and voluntary organisations.

We argue that these five dimensions provide the basis for a broader and more balanced indicator set that is more able to fairly reflect the various ways in which universities contribute to European innovation capacity beyond extremely limited numbers of spin-offs, patents and license deals.

Backed up by appropriate indicator sets, hopefully this will allow policy makers across Europe to better understand and steer their higher education systems in order to optimise their contribute to balanced, fair and sustainable economic growth.


For more information on the Eunivation project, please visit:

About Nadine Zeeman

Nadine Zeeman is a Research Associate at CHEPS working on the projects U-Map and U-Multirank. She is additionally responsible for coordinating a group of student assistants. Her interests lie in quality assurance in higher education and in transparency tools focusing on classifications and rankings in higher education. She can be found on Twitter @NadineZeeman and U-Map @UMapping.


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