How can universities contribute to societies’ economic and social wellbeing? This is a timely question: the world, as we see it today, has not always been like this. Technological advancement, the ICT revolution, the rise of artificial intelligence, use of automation, and emergence of digital currencies has left many in an awe. However, in order to make the progress sustainable, attention should be paid to a number of things , among which one of the most important is education. Education serves as an apparatus to provide the intellectual capital necessary to maintain the growth and development of modern economies. University education, being a pinnacle, becomes ever more important in this regard.
Universities have long played an important role in accelerating countries’ economic growth and development by educating the workforce that can serve the industrial needs. They are also a seedbed for scientific breakthroughs, philosophical notions and critical thinking necessary for economic and social development. However, universities’ conventional model of teaching and learning has been challenged.
Universities are beset with tremendous pressure to transform their operations to remain relevant as well as to maintain their role as a value-offering institution in the contemporary world. The rise of fourth industrial revolution and an excessive use of information and communication technologies offers a number of opportunities as well as challenges for educational institutions. The opportunities, if properly exploited, can transform universities into increasingly important institutions with extended contribution to the society. However, if ignored, they also have the potential to challenge universities’ very existence or marginalise their utility.
Addressing the talent gap
Technological advancements are driving the growth of knowledge-based economy. This trend has the potential to transform how countries and regions become economic hubs. Traditionally, success has been reliant upon pre-existing industrial bases, massive physical infrastructures and expertise in conventional businesses. The growth in today’s digital word is more linked to technological proficiency and innovations. The digital revolution has made it necessary for countries to equip their workforce with new skills to meet the present-day industrial needs. Universities can play an important role in countries’ efforts to adapt to industry’s changing needs by taking a more proactive role.
One part of the Digitalisation Academy (DA-PITO) project  scrutinised how academia and industry can collaborate to bridge the skill gap that currently exists between ‘what is taught’ and ‘what is practiced’. Digitalisation Academy was established in Vaasa as a collaborative effort of regional companies and academic institutions to tackle the issue of talent shortage in the region. The core idea behind the DA is to develop an interdisciplinary program to boost students’ digitalisation skills, offer opportunities to network with industry professionals, and provide them with hands-on experience. The study highlights many interesting observations and suggestions that can help universities in developing future lines of action.
Industry focused teaching and learning
Universities need to keep abreast with the fast-paced changes happening in the outside world. Companies prefer graduates that do not require months of in-house training before they can contribute to the business in real terms. Universities ought to understand what is needed in the industry and train students accordingly. This can be achieved in part by upgrading curricula, emphasising collaboration with industry, and adopting innovative approaches in teaching and learning.
If universities fail to step up to these changing needs, it is feared that a part of their functioning may be replaced by the other actors, such as institutes and platforms offering online courses for skills developments, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and readily available material on digital forums. This may significantly decrease universities’ student intake for conventional degree programs. This could have serious effect on universities revenues in the long run.
A collaborative approach
Adopting a collaborative approach can help universities beset the challenge at hand. Universities can form natural alliances with other academic institutions to create synergies and achieve common goals. The availability of online tools and resources has made it easier for universities to collaborate.
The ongoing pandemic has forced us to reconsider our approaches and ways of doing things. It can be argued that it has worked as a catalyst in accelerating the use of online tools and resources for teaching and learning. Universities can make most of this forced transition by developing common platforms, sharing resources and carrying out joint activities.
Inclusiveness and social sustainability
Currently, universities and educational institutions seem to be working in silos to which outsiders have very little access. Much interesting work ends up being published in academic journals, which are rarely available to the masses.
Universities can bridge the gap between academia and the general public by opening their doors to the outside community, arranging activities and seminars on common good, and sharing information that has a public value. This can help develop trust and closer collaboration, in turn leading to open discussions that can help universities understand the needs of stakeholders, communities and the society at large.
Striking a balance
The industry-leaning approach can certainly bear fruit. However, the extent to which the collaboration should happen is a slippery slope.
For centuries, universities have acted as knowledge hubs, creating and disseminating knowledge for social good. Universities need to ensure that the increased collaboration does not shift their orientation from curiosity-driven to a market-driven approach, into acting solely as a proxy of the industry. Creating and maintaining a balance is crucial, as universities are uniquely positioned at the heart of this issue and a lot depends on how they approach it.
PhD Shah Rukh Shakeel, Researcher, University of Vaasa’s InnoLab
 Such as affordable and clean energy, sustainable production and consumption, industry innovation and infrastructure, addressing climate issues, sustainable cities and communities and so on can contribute to this.
 The project is carried out by the team of researchers from University of Vaasa’s Innolab with the financial support of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment (Finland).
Niemi, Mari K. & Sorin Dan, Johanna Kalliokoski, Khuram Shahzad, Shah Rukh Shakeel, Rathan Alagirisamy, Iida Laurila (2021): . Publications of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment 2021:23. Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland, Helsinki, 2021.
Introduction to Digitalisation Academy on YouTube (in Finnish): https://youtu.be/Ibe4nuETxIk
University of Vaasa press release (in Finnish): https://www.uwasa.fi/fi/uutiset/olisiko-vaasassa-perustettu-digitalisaatio-akatemia-hyva-malli-osaajapulaan-ympari-suomea
Image credit: Ulrich Wechselberger