Executive summary

Study context

Higher education is changing across the European Union and OECD countries. Entrepreneurship and innovation in higher education are no longer only associated with business start-ups and technology transfer but are increasingly understood as core elements of a procedural framework for how organisations and individuals behave. For example, in how they create and nurture links between teaching and research, how they organise engagement and knowledge exchange, how they manage effective partnerships with a range of stakeholders, and how they support nascent entrepreneurs. Transforming (traditional) higher education institutions (HEIs) into entrepreneurial and innovative organisations is neither an easy nor a straightforward endeavour. Major obstacles may lie deep in the higher education system, for example if knowledge exchange and engagement with business and society are not included in the HEI’s core functions or core funding.

A strong and growing engagement agenda with industry and local communities, the emergence of new learning environments and interdisciplinary research teams make Ireland an ideal country to take a closer look into the ongoing transformation processes in HEIs. This report presents evidence-based analysis of the current strategies and practices to support innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education, using the HEInnovate guiding framework, jointly developed by the European Commission and the OECD.

Key findings

Irish higher education plays a fundamental role in fostering entrepreneurial career paths for students and graduates. The wide and rich range of initiatives includes undergraduate and postgraduate courses, work-based learning, business start-up and incubation programmes, mentoring and coaching to mention but a few. President’s Awards and national competitions, such as the all-Ireland business plan competition, are also important to showcase achievements by staff and students in HEIs.

Several of the HEIs visited for this review demonstrated that innovation and entrepreneurship are embedded within their strategy and in the organisation as a whole. This provides fertile grounds, not only for learner development and a wide application of research results through business and in society, but also for the definition of new interdisciplinary approaches in education and research. The activities are supported and driven by senior management, usually by a combination of the Vice-president for research and the heads of faculty. A strong emphasis is placed on staff development programmes.

HEIs in Ireland play multiple roles in their local environments and are, particularly outside the capital city, pivotal drivers of economic, social and community development. Their success in attracting third-party funding shows their importance as catalysts in unlocking collaborative research which smaller organisations, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, may not have the capacity or networks to pursue alone. The involvement of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) in this appears to be somewhat less developed than Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Still, there are several examples of good practice which should be replicated in all faculties.

The sustainability of these multiple roles of HEIs is a question of institutional autonomy and organisational capacity, of which the amount, allocation and duration of funding are key determining factors. For their entrepreneurial and innovation activities, including entrepreneurship education and start-up support initiatives, the HEIs are heavily and in some cases almost totally dependent upon temporary project funding. This position has become even more pronounced during the recent economic crisis, which has seen a significant reduction in state funding for the higher education system. This is impacting on the range and sustainability of activities, as the HEIs have had to be fluid and flexible in their financial strategies and focused on maintaining core activities principally in the teaching and learning arena.

The higher education system is currently structured in the form of a mission-diverse and complementary system with highly collaborative HEIs, in which diversity, high quality and performance can be maintained and strengthened. National initiatives to support the further development of the higher education system include the introduction of a new system performance framework, strategic dialogue and institutional compacts and the establishment of Regional Skills Fora and Regional Clusters.

Effective internationalisation strategies have evolved from the active participation of HEIs in international networks. A new sector-wide strategy was recently published and discussions are underway regarding the extension of the “stay back” period to two years for cohorts of international graduates with relevant in-demand skills.

There are many examples of innovative and impactful activities taking place in HEIs. However it might be fair to say that individual HEIs, research groups and the sector as a whole have not been effective at telling their story and making the case for further funding and investment. While there are numerous sources of information on various activities, these are not being translated effectively enough into details of their actual impacts in terms of the economy and society as a whole. It will also be important to enhance inter- and transdisciplinary research initiatives and their impact.

The higher education sector needs to speak with one voice in describing and aggregating the impact of its core functions in education, research and engagement in order to win the support of policy makers and the public for continued and additional investment. There are already examples of good practice present in the Irish HEIs. Information about these needs to be made widely available and such good practice should be replicated and promoted.

Key recommendations

For public policy action

  • Enhance collaboration between policy structures and state agencies involved in supporting entrepreneurship and innovation in HEIs.

  • Broaden the scope for multi- and transdisciplinary research initiatives in research priorities, and in the effort to mobilise HEIs in local, regional and national development.

  • Review current employment control restrictions in higher education to allow for enhanced engagement activities with business and society.

  • Continue targeted state investment in internationalisation initiatives.

  • Support HEIs in creating collaborative and mentor links with innovative and entrepreneurial HEIs abroad.

  • Introduce a system-wide exercise to document and assess the impact of entrepreneurship and innovation in higher education.

For higher education institutions

  • Expand entrepreneurship education across all disciplines and increase the number of interdisciplinary education activities.

  • Increase the number of places available on venture creation programmes, particularly for students and alumni.

  • Incentivise and support staff engagement in knowledge exchange activities.

  • Enhance collaboration with small and medium-sized enterprises through a single “front door” approach.