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At the interface between universities and companies

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.

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Harri Siiskonen
Dean

Problematics of university rankings

I got an SMS late in the evening congratulating me for our university’s ranking success. I was a little baffled about the timing of the message, but thought that the person sending it wanted to take part in the joy we had felt at the university for the past week due to our excellent performance in a ranking list of the young universities. In the morning, when my brain worked faster, I remembered that a new ranking list had been published at midnight. Indeed: the sender’s home university had succeeded well and, for the first time in its history, they were ranked among the world’s leading universities. Our university didn’t do quite as well.

Although none of the rankings are perfect in terms of the data and methodology used, their significance for the reputation of universities is unpredictably great. They tell about something else, too. However, one should stop and think about whether they tell about genuine differences in quality, or about something that should not be forced on the same scale to begin with. Or whether they tell about overall indexes, which are basically indicative of nothing with real-life importance.

It is a known fact that measuring anything other than the number of scientific articles published in international journals is difficult. The quantitative indicators used in the first rankings were favourable to some fields, and this has now been corrected by introducing field-specific weightings which, in turn, can accumulate success for fields in which the competition isn’t that hard. The distortion caused by the weight of the quantitative indicators has also been tried to be fixed by various reputation surveys. A multidisciplinary university from a small language area faces inevitable disadvantage in the competition.

In my opinion, continued success in several different rankings constitutes a good goal for us. This year again, the UEF was one of the three Finnish universities which all the three major ranking list publishers (ARWU, QS and THE) recognise as being among the world’s leading 400 or 500 universities. It’s good to continue from here, and also to increase people’s awareness of us, which in our case has been a weak spot in all rankings.

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Perttu Vartiainen