Think, Create – How Universities in Netherlands Can Do Better

The interaction between university, industry and government is key to innovation and growth. Innovation simply defined is “fresh thinking that creates value [1]“.  Capable of fresh thinking by the brightest minds, universities (or other knowledge producing institutions) still struggle whether the results of those thinking exercises are just part of academic freedom not to “do” anything with that other than for educational and scholarly purposes, or, use the results of this “fresh thinking” to bring about innovations in cooperation with businesses to create new products or services.  Although universities, companies and governments have different goals and views on what to achieve, for any country to grow and innovate, these three institutions form a “triple helix” even as they maintain their primary roles and their distinct identities[2]. Firm or company formation based on advanced technologies, originated from knowledge centers is key to an innovative strategy.

In recent OECD “peer reports” on higher education and the role of universities and other higher education institutions in Europe), a less than formidable situation is pictured for The Netherlands, with some very critical findings on the city of Amsterdam.

Basically the peer report finds several areas where Amsterdam lags behind other European cities when it comes to university-business coopeartion or the simulation of entrepreneurial mentality among students. The report exposes major deficiencies in the way Amsterdam universities work together with businesses to create innovation, it fails to attract enough private investment in higher education and research centers for a closed collaboration between public and private sector. R&D spending in and around Amsterdam is below average for Europe (and even below average for the rest of Netherlands).

This should worry both local as well as national politicians. The Netherlands has an abundance of creative minds and “fresh thinking”. However, if we fail to produce tangible results from this abundance of creative minds to foster innovation we are missing a unique opportunity to drag the country as well as Europe out of recession.

There is a constant need to use those involved in higher education to be actively involved  -while learning and researching – in existing businesses, learn from experience in those businesses while learning to see how innovative research done in educational centers can promote innovation activities.  Is this an issue in The Netherlands only? Not at all. Financial Times’ editorial comment last week (“Lost in Translation“) signals in the UK a failure to effectively “science-fund”  knowledge centers, comparable with the highly effective Fraunhofer Institute in Germany.

Some findings of the OECD report:

  • “Strategic developments for the Amsterdam region also need to reflect its position in the wider polycentric area of the Randstad. The diversity in the Randstad region should be seen as an asset. This region has seven universities and 18 higher education colleges. Such a major knowledge pool offers significant opportunities for multidisciplinary research activities. This potential seems to be unfulfilled partly due to lack of incentives and as a consequence of counterproductive organizational structures.”
  • “As revealed in a SWOT analysis, the region does not attract enough private investment into higher education and research whereas the public investment is actually above the national average. This indicates a need for a closer collaboration between the public and private sector. Also, a point of concern is that R&D spending among companies in the Amsterdam region is below the average for the Netherlands (see Table 10).”
  • “Across the board the higher education institutions in Amsterdam could play a more active role in establishing relationships with SMEs and with clusters. The links that exist are fragmented and the education sector is not yet a leading actor in promoting networking and strengthening cluster coherence. Intermediate organizations such as AIM try to aggregate initiatives and combine expertise but in a relatively scattered way. In the case of life science, the cluster has difficulty achieving critical mass: more needs to be done to attract companies and foreign R&D investment. Life sciences is a very competitive sector, dominated by some very large companies, and other regions in the Netherlands and Europe are pursuing similar strategies. VU MC and AMC have strengths but their dynamic for spin off development is modest and their synergetic impact on the cluster is limited . The sustainability cluster lacks unity and the logistics cluster is still on the drawing board.”

For further reading on this subject: Michael Shattock, “Entrepreneurialism in Universities and the Knowledge Economy: Diversification and Organisational Change in European Higher Education”, Society for Research Into Higher Education

[1] Vijav Vaitheeswaran (Global Correspondent, The Economist), Fresh Thinking for the Ideas Economy (March 23-24, Berkeley, California)

[2] Henry Etzkowitz, “The triple helix: university-industry-government innovation in action”, Routledge (2008).

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