Close cooperation with business is among the top priorities in the strategies of most European universities, and the achievements of Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) in this field are remarkable, says Heike Fischbach, Policy Officer for Education and Culture at European Commission’s General Directorate.
Heike Fischbach, Policy Officer for Education and Culture at European Commission’s General Directorate

September 24–25 in Vilnius and Kaunas, the forum Developing Talents for Innovation-Based Economies will take place. This is the first time when the Forum, which is being organised by the European Commission together with other institutions every several months, is taking place in the Baltics.

Global and national experts of business and research fields will discuss encouraging talent development, raising quality of education, expanding innovations and strengthening collaboration between modern businesses and higher education institutions.

Kaunas University of Technology will host an important part of the event – the panel discussion Making New Knowledge Work for Business and Society. Fishbach maintains that such forums as this, which is being organised by European Commission, Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, KTU, Lithuanian Ministry of Education and Research and Lithuanian Universities Rectors’ Conference, serve as a bridge between business and science.

Why did the European Commission establish the University-Business Forum and how did it come to Lithuania?

The first ever University-Business Forum took place in 2008 and has been held almost every year since. During its EU Presidency in 2013, Lithuania was a keen advocate of university-business cooperation and took many steps to integrate this into their education policies. Following a series of university-business forums in Warsaw, Stockholm, Rome and Berlin, we agreed with the Ministry to organise a dedicated forum here in Lithuania with the employers association.

As Lithuania is one of the newer EU member states, others in a similar situation could “compare” what they are doing to tackle their specific challenges. The interest in the conference shows the uptake of this topic in Lithuania and beyond.

What is its purpose in the role in modernisation of higher education in Europe?

EU member states are working to increase the relevance and quality of higher education. A key part of this is strengthening the collaboration between companies and academia. Contexts, constraints and opportunities vary of course between the Member States. There is no “one-size-fits-all" solution for how best to cooperate. The lack of mutual understanding between the worlds of higher education and business can be addressed in a number of ways, including through the University-Business Forum. The European Commission has been asked to facilitate the exchange of good practice and to provide a space for meeting and discussing at EU level, not only virtually but also face-to-face.

What opportunities does cooperation between business and universities provide for both sides?

There are many great examples of how companies’ staff, students, professors and researchers can work together. It's more than just knowledge exchange and start-up creation. It’s about changing attitudes over the longer run by integrating more internships into the curricula; working on real-life tasks; involving company staff in teaching; sharing work spaces – to give just a few examples.

We are always surprised at the range of activities underway. Thanks the close cooperation with our partners here in Lithuania we were able to identify a range of interesting initiatives here such as the Santaka Valley or the Thermo Fisher Biosciences Center. Working closely with higher education and intermediaries, companies can ensure that students develop the transferable competences needed as well as the right technical skills. Investing in future talent is true value for money.

How do creative and innovative people contribute to the economic growth of their organisations and countries?

This is indeed a good question and solid data is lacking on this. But we know there are many positive benefits to gain: knowledge-based growth is built on research and innovation, which both need inspired (and inspiring) people. And it's higher education that provides graduates with the right skills. Many regions have taken up this approach and highlight explicitly in their regional innovation strategies the role that higher education institutions play – both in social and economic terms.

Could you give a short answer for one of the UBForum‘s topics ‘What makes universities attractive to business partners and vice versa?’

Leadership at university and company level often face competing priorities. For example, a small business might need a specific expertise or a quick response for running its businesses successfully – without its own research or testing department to rely on. In such a case, students could perhaps explore and test creative solutions in a secure environment and make do a feasibility check with company staff.

Larger companies can feed into universities the skills set they will require from graduates. They are also well place to share their entrepreneurial experiences and to encourage staff and students think in more business-oriented ways.

So how do universities stand to gain? Of course completion and employability rates are crucial as they are so often linked to funding. Strong cooperation with business could be a good 'pull factor' to attract talented students. I'm interested to hear more from our speakers on this topic.

What is the role of higher education and business cooperation in the knowledge economy and the economic recovery in EU?

With economic pressure and competition, universities are major economic players in the development of a city and region. Studies show that regions with strong links between companies and universities are less vulnerable to economic downturn. The challenges of the economic crisis and a more community-based approach to innovation are giving rise to new forms of engagement and regional collaboration. In regions struggling to adapt to a knowledge economy, the university can act as a facilitator helping the region on a new path to growth.

There are many ways in which university-business collaboration can contribute to sustainable economic growth. When and what can actually be expected from collaboration between business and university? What should be the focus of such collaboration: job creation or knowledge creation?

Of course, boosting job creation and growth is on top of the Commission's agenda. And knowledge and job creation go hand-in-hand with a non-linear, qualitative change of work and jobs.

Lithuania shows to what extent job profiles, labour market conditions and education systems can change in a short time. The key is to enable people to get decent employment through a good quality and relevant learning experience.

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