Ahead of the February 26th deadline for submitting proposals to set up Knowledge Alliances between universities and enterprises, it is time to look at what kind of partnerships between business and academia that the European Union is co-financing.
Partnerships between business and academia
Let us recall that Knowledge Alliances have to count at least six partners from three countries, of which minimum two enterprises and two higher education institutions. Information from the European Commission says that the projects are open to any discipline, sector and to cross-sectoral co-operation. Such a business/academia alliance should have a short and long-term impact on a wide
range of labour market stakeholders and institutions. This means that a Knowledge Alliance may involve employers and labour market institutions in the design and delivery of training materials. Also, support to staff exchanges and practical experience in courses could attune curricula to current and emerging needs of the labour market.
Labour market stakeholders and institutions
As reminded by the Executive Agency in charge of implementing the entire programme Erasmus+, enterprises in such projects should clearly demonstrate their role, – from the conception phase till the end of the contractual period. And applications for Knowledge Alliances should contain clear explanation of the benefits for the business side of the partnership.
One implication of these instructions and advice is that experience and input from enterprises cannot be reduced to engaging a consultancy firms for carrying out one or more of the compulsory work packages, like project management and evaluation or quality control.
More substantial input from enterprises could be the production of technology-assisted learning materials or by taking part in shop floor testing, or more indirectly by having a seat in a user forum set up to guide the project.
Experiences from previous EU programmes offering support to university-enterprise co-operation suggest that the specific field in which a project intervenes should determine the concrete involvement of enterprises. Hence, a project addressing one field marked by active research partners but with so far low business interest, could be met with lower expectations of enterprise participation.
No one-size-fits-all evaluation of partnerships
The latest evaluations of EU education and training programmes, which led up to the ongoing Erasmus+ with its Knowledge Alliances, have mainly assessed the efficiency and effectiveness of previous programmes in order to inform the European Parliament and the Council on money and resources spent. These evaluations tell us less about the nature of previous EU support to collaborative projects between universities and enterprises. To entice new such partners, and the range of labour market institutions called upon for forging future Knowledge Alliances, a sharper eye for the variety of partnerships is needed. Only in this way can we gain insight in what is covered by the present alliances, as well as what needs to be adjusted in future support from the EU to joint projects between business and academia.
Towards a typology of Knowledge Alliances?
There is a variety of university-enterprise partnerships according to the specific field or topic in which a Knowledge Alliance intervenes. As more and more such projects are being approved during the annual Call for proposals arranged by European Commission services, it could make sense to establish a typology that captures how these partnerships differ or resemble. An initial list of university-enterprise partnerships may identify:
a) projects in which academia and business jointly explore the research frontier in a certain topic or field
b) university-enterprise projects for joint development of mutual interest, with a slightly unclear vision of continued co-operation (perhaps for good reasons, because the thematic field is very new?)
c) networks from several programmes of the forerunners to Erasmus+, but now adapting to the new priorities of Knowledge Alliances
d) projects with many institutional stakeholders systematically involved in exploiting results from previous projects, thereby assuring the sustainability of previous EU programmes.
Alliances for mutual strengthening
Finally, a Knowledge Alliance intends to set up co-operation between partners in such a way that neither a university nor an enterprise is the only engine of the partnership. Hence, universities do not utilise their full capacity if their role is confined to writing trivial procedures and manuals for enterprises.