We are currently in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. A crisis that paradoxically has strengthened both the local and global role of universities. On the one hand, universities have gained a more global reach. The crisis has accelerated their digital transition. Education and research have never been as intensively digital as in this crisis, which has made the global reach of universities possible. We teach students locally and globally at the same time, in the same digital classroom, and it has never been easier to meet research staff worldwide.
On the other hand, universities are becoming an anchor in their local economy: a stable employer in the business turbulence of the crisis, and students prefer to commute a short distance from their university rather than from other regions. We do not yet know what the long-term effects of this crisis will be, but it will certainly lead to new articulations of the local and the global. What role can we expect the university to play in such an increasingly digital and fragile knowledge economy?
We already knew that we live in a society that faces global challenges. Tackling these challenges, locally has become even more prominent in the COVID-19 crisis. Challenges for which solutions must be discovered and cr eated. This requires attitudes, skills and behaviours that stimulate the pursuit and realisation of new value creation.
The university’s traditional role as a developer of in-depth disciplinary, scientific expertise needs to be enriched with attitudes and skills aimed at creating new value and improving tomorrow’s society. Universities should show in their curriculum and overall communication that it can be attractive for students and staff to get involved in the identification and pursuit of new opportunities for value creation, and should also enable the development of skills to do so, within, or perhaps even better, outside the university. Talent and knowledge creation must become increasingly multidisciplinary in order to create new combinations of knowledge and skills needed to meet global challenges. Creating these new combinations and making them work requires students and researchers equipped with the right entrepreneurial skills and attitudes.
Universities should encourage bottom-up initiatives, combined with a university vision. Universities need to become aware of their role in entrepreneurial ecosystems, namely to train students who can create value in organisations, the economy and society. And universities are a source of knowledge that stimulates curiosity and is relevant to society.
“The future is not something that exists out there, but something that we create. Entrepreneurship is key to creating the future, and universities must be a catalyst to enable entrepreneurship by being a source of talent and knowledge locally, but also to connect with other enterprising ecosystems globally. “
Universities have an extremely important role to feed entrepreneurial ecosystems with talent and knowledge, and can also enable the creation of an entrepreneurial culture and act as a connector between public and private actors. They will do this primarily via the core tasks of research and teaching. There is no one way to do this right. Being an effective feeder is something that can be learned via trial-and-error, in collaboration with (alumni) entrepreneurs and other key actors in the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem and of other entrepreneurial ecosystems.
Erik Stam is the Professor of Strategy, Organization & Entrepreneurship and Dean of the Utrecht University School of Economics. He has held positions at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the University of Cambridge, the Max Planck Institute of Economics, the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy, and the University of Oxford. He is a leading scholar on entrepreneurial ecosystems. His broader research interests cover the societal and organizational contexts of entrepreneurship and the relation between entrepreneurship and economic development. He has (co-)authored more than a hundred books, book chapters, and articles in a variety of disciplines, including economics, geography, business/management and public administration.