Universities, and higher education institutions (HEIs) more broadly, have an important role in responding to and recovering from the pandemic, and building resilience thereafter, especially in the transition to more digital and greener business models. They create human capital and are sources of innovative research, and in doing so, build the foundations of tomorrow’s innovators and entrepreneurs. 

But their full potential to drive change is untapped in many countries, especially at the local level, despite evidence that highlights the significant role they can play in driving local innovation, productivity and entrepreneurship. This, in part, reflects the fact that too many remain guided by inadequate incentives. Success for HEIs is, for example, often measured according to academic publications and citations — 60% of a HEI’s score on the World University Rankings is comprised of metrics regarding research income and citations. These metrics have long been the currency of academia; a means to acquire positions, grants and visibility.


However, increasingly HEIs and policy makers are working together to rewrite the rules to enhance local impact. In the Karlstad region of Sweden, for example, Karlstads Universitet actively collaborates with the regional government of Värmland to serve as an anchor for the region’s wider innovation efforts. Its Academy for Smart Specialisation identifies priority areas for research and teaching efforts to meet local needs, from the forestry sector to public policy priorities, such as digitalisation and welfare services — key challenges in a rural region with an ageing population. The Academy translates the regional innovation strategy into a shared understanding and incentives for faculty, and drives external collaborations that have generated €50m for research that mirrors local needs and opportunities.

Across the Atlantic, the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, fulfils a special obligation to supporting the needs and opportunities of the region. In 2011, Memorial worked with hundreds of local individuals and organisations to establish a long-term vision rooted in local needs with tangible, measurable objectives, both in terms of individual projects and relationships, and administrative and strategic decision-making. Local engagement and impact are now a core part of project and program development, as well as hiring processes and university decision-making. 

As shown in the OECD’s recent evaluation of the Academy, these new models are not without challenges. External engagement is resource-intensive and complex, especially when it comes to support for small and medium-sized enterprises. Balancing connections and obligations to local, national and international innovation systems requires continuous attention. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for long-lasting and transformative impacts. 

To support this momentum, the OECD has launched a new collaborative platform, the Entrepreneurship Education Collaboration and Engagement network (EECOLE). EECOLE is open to all, and will offer a neutral environment for HEIs to interact with national and sub-national governments, business, finance and civil society.

Anne Rimmer and Raffaele Trapasso both work at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. Raffaele Trapasso is an economist and Anne Rimmer is a policy analyst.