Universities of applied sciences are shaping up to boost EU research outputs

29 Aug 2023 | News

As EU research framework programmes put more a greater focus on innovation, applied sciences universities are pulling their weight in Horizon Europe. Now they need help in the form of calls targeted at their resources and capabilities

There’s a new player in Horizon Europe - the universities of applied sciences (UAS), a broad term for second tier higher education institutes such as polytechnics, regional colleges and institutes of technology that were set up as teaching-only bodies but which over time have moved into research.

Given their roots, UAS were historically left out of the EU’s research programmes but are slowly improving their standing as EU-funded research becomes more policy-heavy and market-oriented.

Now these institutions need a leg up to give it their best, according to University of Lugano researcher Marco Cavallaro, who has studied how policymakers can best support them.

“We see that in most countries they are expected to do research and to internationalise, but they often lack capacities and resources to do so,” Cavallaro told Science|Business.

Cavallaro’s recent analysis shows the institutions that do best in EU framework programmes are those that are most research-focused. While this seems self-evident, it can be difficult for UAS that have prioritised teaching to pivot, even given that the focus of teaching has shifted in recent years with UAS putting more resources into research in order to give students a more adaptable skill set in an ever-more complex world.

UAS are not a carbon copies of each other and depending on the country, have different histories and functions. In the UK, polytechnics were granted university charters in 1992. In the Netherlands, they are known as ‘Hogescholen’ and play a key role in the country’s education system as well as having a strong research base. In Switzerland, the UAS were established in the 1990s in a then-controversial move but now play a big part in the country’s innovation success.

A few years ago, as Brussels was trying to figure out how to get EU research programmes to produce tangible results for the market, the Commission shifted its gaze to the UASs. The EU’s research  programme at the time, Horizon 2020, was great at fundamental research but lacked impact in innovation and deployment. To fill the gap, UAS offered expertise in closer-to-market innovation and links to local innovation systems across Europe.

“They are more focused on applied research and are also quite established locally and regionally,” says Cavallaro. “In Horizon Europe Pillar II [focused on big collaborative projects], they can cover the applied research part and make use of their local networks if [the projects] need local use cases.”

To bring their voices together, at the request of the Commission, five organisations started the association UAS4Europe in 2016. It’s now grown into a network of 450 UAS in 24 countries, with 60,000 research staff and two million-plus students.

Mindful design

UAS may be needed in Horizon Europe, but that doesn’t mean they find participation straightforward. While it’s getting easier for them to join projects as they become shorter in duration and span higher technology readiness levels (TRLs) – criteria that UAS score well in – projects don’t land in their laps.

The first item of business is building networks of partners, a key part to joining any Horizon project. Project partners are needed around Europe, and there’s progress being made as various Horizon players slowly start acknowledging the contribution of UAS. For one, they have close links with small and medium enterprises across various European regions, which are great to have on board when deploying a technology as part of a project.

A change in culture is needed, Cavallaro says. European University Alliances, EU-funded networks piloting new modes of international university cooperation, could play a role here. A few are making progress, with Cavallaro listing alliances including E3UDRES, EU4DUAL and RUN-EU that bring together multiple UAS.

But EU policymakers’ main role here isn’t helping build capacity but rather designing calls with UAS in mind. Horizon Europe Missions, the 49 industrial partnerships and the European Innovation Council’s Transition grants are all programmes many UAS are interested in.

The Swiss case

When it comes to Horizon, Swiss UAS are the frontrunners. They were established in the 1990s with applied research as the mission from the start, explains Cavallaro. This gives them at advantage when competing with other research organisations and they have proven to be a core part of the Swiss innovation success, with the country regularly coming near the top of the bi-annual European innovation scoreboard.

A big part of the success has been the dedicated Innosuisse funding scheme for applied research, says Cavallaro. In many other countries, such as the UK and Norway, governments give out research funding based on traditional performance-based metrics, such as the number publications produced. In such cases, UAS find it hard to compete with established research universities for funding and finding it hard to access resources to grow their research capacity. Programmes designed with applied research in mind could shift the scales.

It's all about allowing these universities to build up capacity. As the case of the UK shows, it’s not just giving them a different name – despite former polytechnics being given university status from 1992, they have not managed to close the research gap with the older universities, Cavallaro notes in his paper. This is reflected in EU’s research programmes too.

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