Universities in the Regional Agenda: How Can They Drive Innovative, Technological and Social Regional Development?


1 Priority Project Support Center
National Research Tomsk State University
*Corresponding author, *email address protected*



Structural reforms in the economy and the social sector aim for the support of economic growth and development. This requires the ongoing evolution of institutions which determine the pace and quality of growth. In the Russian institutional environment, there is a gap between university activities and its engagement in social and economic development of the regions to meet the real regional challenges. This lacuna complicates university performance assessment in addressing topical issues of the agenda of the territories. In this regard, the accentuation of the new university function as of a participant in the regional development shifts the focus of the university institutional evolution to understanding its role for local communities, cities and territories. Here, our approach to closely examine the university transformation is consistent with the agenda for the development of higher education in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries (OECD) (European Union, 2011).


In Russia we have observed vivid changes over last fifteen years in the tertiary education landscape. The federal government has allocated quite a significant amount of effort and financial resources for universities to initiate changes and achieve results set by the governing bodies to which universities are subordinate. Russian universities encompass two obvious stages of the development supported by federal money allocations.

  1. 2000-2010 – specific activity-centered projects and programs with a strong focus on structural and operational transformation: innovative educational programs (2005), federal universities (2006), national research universities (2008), university spin-offs basing on university intellectual property (2009), granting subsidies to businesses for contracting university research (2010), university innovation infrastructure (2010), and attracting leading world researchers to head research laboratories in Russian universities (2010).
  2. From 2011 – systemic projects of a more holistic nature with a focus on university institutional transformation and engagement in cooperation of different scales and scope:
  • project ‘5-100’ on increasing university global competitiveness (2012-ongoing);
  • supporting – 2016-2022 – the regional flagship universities strongly embedded in the regions and territories, as a rule, with tight sectoral industrial connections (2015-ongoing);
  • national strategic project “Universities as the drivers for innovative, technological and social regional development” devoted to universities’ engagement in regional development (launched in 2016).

Figure 1: Support Programs for Russian Universities in 2000s


Figure 2: Support Programs for Russian Universities in 2010s


These changes imply addressing by universities both global and local challenges, but the university performance indicators still hardly enhance the real regional growth, since by the nature of Russian universities they are predominantly considered to be ‘ivory towers’ in the regions – establishments which are subordinate to the federal bodies with weak ties to the regional processes. The development of the Russian regions requires an increase in the number of young professional graduates up to 30-35 who generate the demand for a comfortable and convenient social environment and a new quality of life level. Russian regions are understood as administrative subjects of the Russian Federation. Historically, there has been a shortage of investment in the social sector in Russia, which requires the consolidation of the resources and competencies of educational and scientific organizations of different departmental subordination located in the region, and/or neighboring regions, with similar social and economic conditions for an innovative approach to improving the quality of life. At the same time, there are examples of sustainable cooperation among stakeholders in regional development in joint social projects.

Both a high concentration of educated and creative young people, and a flow of young people who acquire the idea of the value of socially useful activities in the course of education, can serve as a justification for recognizing the university as a source of the region’s competitiveness.

The primary focus of this paper is the national strategic project “Universities as the drivers for innovative, technological and social regional development” initiated by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation. Among the objectives of the study are (1) to identify the framework for the university as a potential driver for innovative, technological, and social regional development, (2) to suggest a possible metrics design for the model implementation policy outline, including specified levels of criteria for universities – for participants of the project to meet.


We are witnessing an ongoing institutional transformation of the triple helix actors due to numerous economic and societal challenges. Smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth can be achieved through innovations at global, national, regional and local levels, with a greater focus on the regional dimension. Regions are “important sites for innovation because of the opportunities they provide for interaction between businesses, public authorities, and civil societies” (European Union, 2011, p.i). Due to differences in regional priorities, activities may vary across regions and should be relevant to the operational programs, but “universities and other higher education institutions have a key role to play in knowledge creation and its translation into innovative products and the public and private services”.

The rise of entrepreneurial universities (Etzkowitz, 2008) implies the necessity of regional governments of use the potential of such institutions to the fullest extent. The university third mission, which is fully articulated and integrated into the official policy agenda, enhances a more responsible university role to meet current societal challenges. Despite the increasing role of the third generation universities in their essence (Wissema, 2009), and the globalisation of knowledge production, the university’s operational role is within the region. Regional innovation and socio-economic strategies have to incorporate in the official documents the responsibility of the triple helix actors to cooperate for the sake of a public good. The authorities should design the policy, offer a platform for a dialogue within the consensus space (Etzkowitz and Ranga, 2010), develop cooperation mechanisms for the triple helix actors’ engagement in the regional development with the focus on the universities as the locus of talents, knowledge, technologies and ideas. According to Klaus Schwab, the fourth industrial revolution is distinct by velocity, breadth and depth, as well as impact involving the transformation of entire systems across and within countries, regions and territories, industries, society and communities, but decision-makers are often too shortsighted and “caught in traditional, linear (and non-disruptive) thinking or too absorbed by immediate concerns to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping our future” (Schwab, 2017). A critical challenge for the regional governments is how to reinforce achieving competitiveness and make it possible for the region to become a world innovation hub, attracting and circulating talent and technology, internationally, but balancing this regional “stickiness” and retaining these crucial assets of talents, knowledge, technologies and ideas (Etzkowitz, 2013).

The existing gap between the university performance in training the intellectual elite of society and university engagement in the development of the socially responsible community in the region also hinders the practical implementation of the third university mission (Loredo, 2007; Trencher et al., 2013). In this regard, the initiation of the university function as of a partner in regional development raises the issue of the university place identification in the social sector development of the university home cities and territories. For the implementation of the third mission the university needs to become a driver of civic initiative generation and development of communities that enhance conditions for coordinating the actions of the main participants in the innovation and technological development in the region (Gulbrandsen and Slipersaeter, 2007). Here, a university, in order to become an entrepreneurial entity, or entrepreneurial university (Etzkowitz, 2004), needs such prerequisites as maturity of communities which are prone to the regional social development. The university third mission anticipates the embeddedness of economic relations in the practices of social networks within the regions and territories (Granovetter, 1985). Therefore, the third university function can be implemented through the role of a driver for innovative, technological, and social development within the region.


For this research we apply a case study method to analyze university strategies and the official regional development strategies of twenty-seven Russian regions. We also use descriptive statistics of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, the Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), as well as data provided by universities and the regions. Russia totals eighty-five regions, among which there are three cities considered as separate regional entities. We focus on (1) the regions with the universities which have already been selected as key reference regional universities, so-called flagship universities, or could achieve such a status (for the program initiated in 2015), (2) the universities which we subjectively consider being embedded in the regional development or could significantly advance in the regional engagement if they receive the tools and a sample roadmap for their development. Also, this narrative case study methodology leads us to the next step of the field research, narrowing the initial sample of the selected cases for semi-structured individual interviews with representatives of the regional authorities, universities, companies, and business associations/clusters.


First, we identified significant variations in university third role in the Russian regions. It is obvious that both universities and regions capabilities to be engaged in the mutually beneficial dialogue and fruitful interaction fall within different levels of readiness (existing potential and available resources), and williness (motivation to generate new resources), which we define as (1) starting, (2) active, or (3) partnering levels. All these levels require both core and variable roadmap (development trajectory) indicators.

One important characteristic of the case study research is multidimensional, asynchronous, and non-systematic formats of available data on the Russian regions and universities. It is manifested in the strategies with quite different stakeholders’ directions and objectives of regional development as well as asynchronous, sometimes even contradictory, understanding of the territorial development by potential partners. The only way to avoid this limitation was the use of descriptive techniques in grouping regional practices.

The study shows that a typical Russian university is poorly focused on developing cooperation with small and medium-sized businesses, large companies, innovative and industrial clusters members, regional associations, and alliances and communities.

An essential correlation was identified between the university’s competencies application and sectoral, institutional and organizational specifics of the regional economy. The university, as a rule, implements joint projects in those sectors where large companies operate. In the sectors with small and medium-sized businesses, the university is geared to knowledge-intensive solutions, technology transfer, and the customization of available high technologies.


Figure 3: Three Levels of University Engagement in Regional Development

Joint projects with companies of regional innovative and industrial clusters are based on applied research, which are part of joint plans with industrial partners to develop a new product, to enter or increase export markets, to expand the company’s market niche. The could-be three-level interaction of the university with other stakeholders in the region is derived from (1) well-established conventional practices of university cooperation, (2) priorities of university research, and (3) the specificity of the regional differentiation and heterogeneity itself.

The starting level, as a rule, is revealed by university practice of contract R&D and technological projects for companies – participants of clusters. The university engages representatives of companies while implementing educational programs, formulating topics for students’ research and final papers, arranging internships within companies. At the starting level the university engagement could be achieved through providing the residents of the region with a free access to publicly significant and cultural facilities, which are directly administered by the university, such as university museums, botanical gardens, public spaces, etc. Another tool to change the place of the university in the social life of the region is the orientation of students to work in social organizations, to promote their social activity, to develop volunteering activities, to participate in socially-oriented non-commercial organizations, or to be engaged in social entrepreneurship. An important role can be played by universities in arranging school classes (including those within the territory of university campus) as well as the development of cooperation with schools.

The active level assumes that the university and companies jointly implement projects aimed at creating new competencies and technologies that surpass the existing practices. The university, on a project basis, aspires for long-term relations with companies, including export activities and orientation. Here, the key assets of the university are university key priority research directions, so-called Strategic Academic Units (SAU), engineering centers and other efficient scientific divisions. Together with the regional cluster, the university implements a joint research program and practice-oriented master’s degree programs to train engineering students with the companies.

Achievement of active level of university participation in the social development of the region means cooperation with regional executive authorities, educational organizations in the formation of a regional model for the search and development of young talents vitality via different channels, e.g. clubs for kids, technical creativity centers and hackspaces, children’s technology parks “Quantorium”, cooperation with Sirius educational and social mobility (social elevator) centers network, or National Technology Initiative Olympiads.

Here, at this participation level, the university can be engaged in building together with the regional authorities such an innovative model for the implementation of social policies in various areas – to support families in a crisis situation, to ensure the ability of families to independently overcome difficult life situations, to restore the economic stability of the family, or to improve the quality of the region’s workforce.

One more important point to mention on this partnership level is the university engagement in creation of public educational platforms and grounds, places and spaces for social engagement of citizens (including co-working facilities), festivals and cultural events for residents. All these can be considered as a practical implementation of the “third places” concept (Oldenburg, 2001; Jeffres et al, 2009). One example of this concept implementation is activities on the basis of the university library potential, where university libraries can act as a center for social and cultural services for different social groups and educational programs for non-profit organizations, socially-oriented small and medium-sized businesses with the involvement of leading experts.

The partnering level previews joint initiatives with companies and scientific organizations on implementing priority activities from the Strategy for Scientific and Technological Development of the Russian Federation (research programs in the areas of scientific and technological progress). Moreover, together with innovative and industrial clusters the university aims for the realization of ‘visionary’ projects within the framework of the Russian National Technological Initiative’s roadmap. The university makes part of international technological platforms, as well as undertakes the steps for their creation in partnership with companies and authorities. The focus of university attention is the new emerging technologies.

The partnering level assumes that the university functions as a “think tank” in the field of innovative and technological development of the region due to the presence of teams in SAU, university divisions, and involvement in the expertise of international networks of leading experts, scientists and practitioners. At the partnering level, the university is able to participate in the design and elaboration of regional policies for social development, including healthcare, education, development of the social services market, social support programs and initiatives, including prevention of family problems and social orphanhood. This does not exclude the search and creation of advanced technological solutions, participation in the implementation of the roadmaps for the Russian nation-wide National Technological Initiative of NeuroNet and HealthNet (Agency for Strategic Initiatives, 2014).


Foss and Gibson (2015, p.1), stress that universities worldwide are tasked with fulfilling and enhancing the third mission of “service” to help to stimulate and sustain economic growth, thus, they [universities] are being encouraged to take an entrepreneurial turn which is heavily influenced by the institutional environment in which the university is embedded. To understand the university, it is important to underpin the university organization level and institutional framework with in-depth comparative studies of the universities’ samples in different regional contexts (Foss and Gibson, 2015). Our results show that choosing an organizational form is essential to the success of the university center of regional innovation and technological development. To implement the suggested university model it is required to involve partnering structures, e.g. innovative and industrial clusters, graduates associations, and non-profit partnership. If necessary, the university creates, together with the cluster, organizations that implement joint plans in applied research and emerging markets. The choice of a suitable mechanism for the implementation of our model can have a decisive influence on the success of such a university center and the entire region. Among the mechanisms that proved their efficiency for universities-region interactions in Russia are: (1) mutual access of universities and cluster companies to collegiate management bodies; (2) the creation or participation in temporary partnerships without legal entities formation or participation in specialized international consortiums; and 3) the creation of structural subdivisions at the university together with the companies.

The implementation of the university’s research competencies through the continuous monitoring of the social situation in the region, the independent examination of the effectiveness of decisions of regional and municipal authorities in the social and family policy, and the identification of the needs of residents in social services, will ensure the identification and description of best practices. Accumulation of data will allow standardization and replication of modern social services, training of personnel in social sector organizations, and the implementation of acceleration programs in the field of social entrepreneurship.

The development of social entrepreneurship skills is possible through participation in the creation of socially-oriented non-profit organizations in accordance with the requests of the region’s residents in the new market segments. The university’s contribution to the introduction of a regional system for assessing and supporting the quality of social services turns out to be essential in this case. The university initiatives in the field of inter-ethnic relations, preservation of national culture and traditions, maintenance of the foundations of social stability and development of public activity of citizens, strengthening the family unity and prevention of family disadvantages, could also be very significant.

It is noteworthy that all these measures in Russia enhance significant interactions. A recent study by Guerrero, Urbano and Fayolle (2016) provides evidence that specifically informal factors (e.g., attitudes, role models) have a higher influence on university entrepreneurial activity than formal factors (e.g., support measures, education and training). Authors stress that their results also evidence a higher contribution of universities on regional competitiveness when they use social measures (talent human capital) instead of economic measures (GDP per capita). It is obvious that the macro approach cannot provide prosperity and growth equally across cities and regions, consequently, regions become responsible for their future (Audretsch, 2015). “The key agenda for today is how to enable public authorities to promote the active engagement of universities and other higher education institutions in regional innovation strategies for smart specialisation, in cooperation with research centres, businesses and other partners in the civil society. It is also important for academic and economic partners to explore the benefits they can expect from working together for regional development” (European Union, 2011, p.i).


This work was performed by the authors in collaboration with National Research Tomsk State University, and the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, within the framework of the priority project “Universities as the drivers for innovative, technological and social regional development”.


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