Nordic universities were very successful in the recently published Times Higher Education European University Top 200 Rankings, as six Finnish universities made the cut, UEF among them. This is a clear indication of the high quality of Finnish education and research, as well as of the functionality of the system. By developing research, this performance can be further enhanced. When it comes to doing research, Finnish universities are getting more and more dependent on external funding every year. Another new trend is the fact that research funders increasingly push universities to collaborate with companies and different organisations in order to put research into practice without delay.
In natural sciences, health sciences and engineering sciences, university-business collaboration has long traditions, but in human sciences, this kind of cooperation has been more random. Collaboration with organisations making use of research findings is a requirement in calls of the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland and in Horizon2020 projects, not to mention in funding offered by the EU’s Structural Funds or Tekes. A key challenge for the Finnish universities – and for human sciences in particular – is to establish links to organisations and especially to companies that utilise research findings. So, how to bring together those who need research data, and those who generate it?
Before answering the question, I’ll explain how things are done at KU Leuven in Belgium, a university that has succeeded very well in research funding calls of the European Commission. Saija Miina, the Research Coordinator of our faculty, was recently introduced to the funding models of five universities in the Flanders area. There, universities are given basic public funding and a significant share of national funding for research on the basis of indicators measuring the performance of their research and innovation activities, and there is no separate competition for funding like we have through the Academy of Finland. The internal distribution of research funding at the universities is based on competition between different research groups. At KU Leuven, internal research funding decisions involve the recipient’s commitment to apply for funding from the instruments of the European Commission, or at least to collaborate with companies and other organisations. For creating networks and making research available to the “markets”, KU Leuven has hired persons with such titles as Industrial Manager and Knowledge Breaker to lower the threshold of researchers to engage in dialogue with companies. The funding model of KU Leuven puts a pressure on researchers to seek cooperation with key stakeholders. Two thirds of Leuven professors collaborate with companies or other organisations, irrespective of their discipline.
As we are competing for the same funds of the European Commission, we need to observe our competitors, adopt best practices and brainstorm for new ways of doing things. At UEF, university-business cooperation has been systematically strengthened since late 2014, following the appointment of Anssi Lehikoinen to a Professor of Practice position. We’ve already seen visible results, and creating increasingly extensive cooperation is the aim of the Commercialisation Solutions project launched late last year, which seeks to create a new model and an incentive system for the commercialisation of research. With an open and broad mind, the interface between universities and companies is fertile ground for creating new ideas on how to develop research and how to apply research findings.