European universities were mainly focusing on research. Only recently, about 30 years ago, some universities became also active in research and development or innovation, contract research with companies, spin-offs, science parks, incubation centres, etc. Last decade, DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission have stimulated innovation projects at the universities in cooperation with the industry and all members states have research and innovation programmes.
Where is the place for education and training in this innovation agenda?
A strong impetus for knitting together research, innovation and education is given by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT, since 2008). EIT is organising research and innovation as well as education and training in selected areas as Energy, Climate, ICT Labs, Healthy Living and Active Ageing, and Raw Materials. The Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) deliver education and training for innovation: MSc programmes, doctoral programmes, but also leadership, executive and short specialization programmes. These innovative programmes are based on partnerships between different universities, companies and research centres that collaborate closely and offer double degrees, international and cross-sectorial mobility experiences, as well as applied innovation and entrepreneurship education. The KICs offer examples of how education for innovation can be organized for an innovation sector.
Although European universities are now developing research and innovation as core activities, education and training for innovation are still under-developed. Education for innovation also entails, for example, continuing professional development and domain-specific open knowledge networks for professionals or business sectors; OERs and MOOCs and other new modes of learning; and courses and curricula, labelled by the university and its stakeholders as education for innovation for a particular area. Where today emphasis is on entrepreneurship, most professionals ask as well for knowledge updating (content) in specialized areas.
As a consequence, education for innovation has to be flexible to reach the target groups envisaged. Hence, new educational formats or needed, many of them being online to ensure flexibility, accessibility and interaction with staff and peer professionals.
European universities are faced with the problem of dealing with large student numbers and low student-to-staff ratios (15/1 or 20/1 and lower, compared with 3/1 or 6/1 in highly ranked universities in the world); delivering high-quality education to these large groups in a close nexus with actual research and innovation; and organising this with a lower (still decreasing) funding per student.
Solving these problems requires the re-thinking and re-designing of on-campus education, using blended forms of teaching and learning, combining traditional formats with new modes of teaching and learning based on ICT.
European systems and universities still largely fail with regard to inclusiveness, as minority groups even don’t have the same access to higher education. In several EU member states, already the drop-out from school is unacceptable (figures rising to more than 25%).
Despite progress over the last five years in the percentages of those qualifying from higher education, member states fail in other areas: 73 million adults have only a low level of education; nearly 20% of 15-year-olds lack sufficient skills in reading, and participation in lifelong learning is only 8.9%.
This is already dramatic for the citizens concerned. It is difficult to survive in a knowledge society without having basic competences and digital literacy skills. By leaving these people out of the system, they are the first victims of unemployment. This is inhibitive for social cohesion and equity in society.
By 2020, 20% more jobs will even require higher-level skills. Education needs to drive up both standards and levels of achievement to match this demand, as well as encourage the transversal skills needed to ensure people are able to be entrepreneurial and adapt to the increasingly inevitable changes in the labour market during their career.
When the system fails in mainstream education, it has to create provisions for adults. In a competitive economy, no talent can be lost. They can not be replaced by the next generation as demographics makes that they simply are not there.
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