Academics must be ‘incentivised’ to boost innovation, says EUA

It is all well and good for the European Commission and universities to claim they want innovation to be at the heart of their strategies. But they have got to incentivise academics by putting innovation at the centre of recognition and reward for career development, an event launching a new report on universities and innovation was told.

Academics need to be motivated to put innovation on an equal footing with research and teaching, participants at an event launching a survey from the European University Association (EUA) were told.

The EUA survey looked at “Innovation Ecosystems for a Sustainable Europe: How to enhance the contribution of universities” and gained responses from 166 institutions in 28 European countries.

It found that 74% of surveyed institutions have a strategy or mission statement that reflects their innovation agenda and that 86% have a technology transfer office – showing an increased focus on knowledge transfer and commercialisation processes.

But outside commercialising ideas and research results, only a third of the universities responding to the questionnaire placed innovation within the career assessment of their academic staff, Stephane Berghmans, the EUA’s director for research and innovation, told the launch event.

Among the key recommendations for universities in the EUA survey report are the need to:

  • Strengthen strategic attention to innovation across all departments, faculties and services with a common vision as well as effective coordination.
  • Provide incentives, rewards and support mechanisms for academic staff innovation activities in career development and assessment and include economic, social, cultural, ethical and environmental impacts.
  • Engage with other stakeholders of the European innovation ecosystem and global network, notably by strengthening links with companies and civil society organisations as part of long-term partnerships to respond to societal challenges.
  • Increase integration of entrepreneurship training into all study programmes to develop innovative mindsets.

Mariya Gabriel, the European Union commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, also addressed the hybrid event held in Brussels and online on 10 November 2021, to coincide with the release of the EUA survey findings. She said universities are a crucial part of the innovation ecosystem, but that the nature of innovation is changing.

She told the EUA event: “Our vision is for higher education institutions in this European strategy to be interconnected, innovative, open, inclusive and digital. All of these things will foster sustainable competitive development.”

Gabriel pointed to the fairly recent development of European university alliances as “an excellent test bed” for European cooperation with a strong focus on innovation – but added there were only 41 alliances representing 283 universities “and we have 5,000 universities in Europe”.