The European Commission wants universities and companies to work more closely together, increasing the chances of commercializing new knowledge and closing the skills gap in the workforce. His flagship initiative to achieve this goal is the creation of “knowledge alliances”, international projects aimed at eliminating barriers to cooperation in priority areas of the economy.
After a trial period involving six pilot projects, the Commission is currently evaluating applications for the first wave of Erasmus + alliances. In total, as part of the program, she wants to create 150 knowledge alliances involving about 1,500 educational institutions and businesses.
Alliances must have a minimum of six independent organizations from at least three countries, including at least two higher education institutions and two companies. The projects last 2-3 years with the intention of making the established structures self-sustaining after the end of EU funding.
It is expected that each alliance will develop innovative ways of producing and sharing knowledge for the benefit of both industry and academia. An important part of this is the impact they have on human capital, for example, by developing curricula that meet business needs, or initiatives to stimulate entrepreneurial thinking among students, academics and company employees.
A common challenge for the pilot projects was finding ways to give students a direct experience of the business environment. Two pilot schemes in the creative industries have tackled this by combining entrepreneurship education in research circles with internships with mentoring in companies and cultural organizations.
But a more radical approach emerged in engineering, where two pilot projects tried to create a middle ground between academia and industry. Know-Fact, led by the University of Patras in Greece, promotes the idea of a training factory for engineers, which reflects a training hospital in the field of medical education. The partners in this case are Volvo in Sweden and Festo in Germany.
The idea is to create a realistic modeling factory where students can work on real industrial projects under the supervision of scientists and industry staff. Tasks will be performed in accordance with industry standards, including compliance with time and budget constraints. During the pilot, most of the collaboration was virtual: students watched the work on the factory via video link, talking to the engineers involved. This could be further developed or developed so that universities have their own teaching factory infrastructure.
This already applies to the partners in the EURL3A pilot project, which has developed “laboratories for real-life learning” in which students could address energy efficiency issues. Two of the participating universities – the University of Applied Sciences Zuida in the Netherlands and the Czech Technical University in Prague – have places where students design, develop, develop and even build sustainable buildings. Meanwhile, students at the University of Ljubljana worked on energy efficiency projects in the old buildings belonging to the university.
In each of these training labs, groups of students from a variety of disciplines worked on assignments from the business sector, led by academics and professionals. “Students enjoy working directly with companies, they’re more motivated than when you teach them in class, and they try harder because companies are involved,” says Wendy Broers, a researcher at the University of Zuid. There were also opportunities for international student exchanges between partners.
The most significant challenge was not to encourage academia and industry to collaborate, but to adapt university programs to meet industry assignments. Real problems cannot wait for the beginning of the semester or the relevant modules. “Instead of being strict about this course in the first year and this course in the second year, maybe it should be more mixed, depending on the assignments you’re working on,” Broers says. Convincing university administrators to be flexible about curricula is a challenge that all knowledge alliances are likely to face.