The Connected University: Ireland’s Higher Education Institutions and their Knowledge Exchange Activities

In this blog, I provide a summary of the working paper we have done on measuring the intensity and diversity of academic engagement with stakeholders in knowledge exchange activities in Ireland. The full paper is available at SSRN:

In this article, we focus on the wide perspective of knowledge exchange, and we analyse the outreach activities involved by academics based at HEIs in Ireland. We draw on the innovation studies and knowledge networks literature to explain the intensity and diversity of knowledge exchange activities.

Our main claim is that, academics in Ireland are much more actively involved in ‘conventional’ activities than in newly emerged ‘third mission’ activities, and Irish HEIs might have gone too far recently in attempting to meet the needs of industry.

Based on survey data collected from both universities and institutes of technology (IoTs), we investigate the current state of knowledge exchange that takes place between academics from all disciplines with partners in both the private and public sectors.

Modes of interactions

Figures 1a and 1b show how intensively respondents were engaged in a total of 24 types of activities within the past three years. In particular, Figure 1a illustrates the activities which were reported by at least 30 per cent of respondents, while Figure 1b displays the activities indicated by less than 30 per cent of respondents.

The two figures combined tend to suggest that staff in the Irish higher education sector were actively engaged in a wide range of external interaction activities with their partners. More importantly, knowledge transfer activities were much less frequently engaged by Irish academics, who were instead heavily involved in activities such as attending conferences, informal advice, participating in networks, giving invited lectures and joint research and publications. On the lower end of the spectrum were external secondment, community based sports, and standard setting forums, which were reported by less than 10 per cent of respondents.

Figure 1a: Academic external interaction activity (% of respondents)1a

Figure 1b: Academic external interaction activity (% of respondents)1b

Types of partners

Figure 2 illustrates how academics in Ireland’s higher education institutions interacted with various types of partners. When all respondents are considered, 57 per cent of academics stated that they engaged with private sector firms, while less than 52 per cent of the responding individuals reported interactions with public sector organisations.

There are some variances between academics in the six disciplines engaging with different types of organisations. While staff in engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, natural science, and management and business were intensively engaged with private sector companies, staff in arts, humanities and social science were most closely involved with public sector organisations. Arts, humanities and social science were the disciplines where staff were much more likely to engage with the public sector than with the private sector. An interesting note to make is that staff in human medical were engaged with partners from the two sectors at, more or less, the same level. In the pharmaceutical sector, although industry supplies the bulk of the funds devoted to research and development, the public sector supports most of the basic research which in general requires a large amount of investment and faces a high risk of failure.

Figure 2: Activities with private sector companies and public sector organisations (% of respondents)2

Constraints on knowledge exchange

Figures 3a, 3b and 3c compare the constraints identified by the respondents when engaging in their knowledge exchange activities.

Constraints in Figure 3a were indicated by more than 25 per cent of respondents, while Figures 3b and 3c include constraints identified by more than 10 per cent and less than 10 per cent of respondents respectively.

The most important constraints cited by academics include a lack of time to fulfil all university roles (62 per cent), insufficient resources devoted by the institution (34 per cent), bureaucracy and inflexibility in the institution (33 per cent) and insufficient rewards from interaction (28 per cent).

By contrast, cultural differences between universities and firms were the least frequently cited constraint by academics, which, in line with the UK evidence, seems to contradict the conventional wisdom that cultural barriers limit interactions between academics and firms (Lambert 2003).

Figure 3a: Constraints on interactions with external organisations (% of respondents)3a

Figure 3b: Constraints on interactions with external organisations (% of respondents)3b

Figure 3c: Constraints on interactions with external organisations (% of respondents)3c

Mission of higher education

The survey asks the respondents how they perceived the role of higher education in the economy. In particular, academics were required to indicate to what extent they agreed with each of the six statements about relationships between businesses and the society (Figure 4).

A 1-to-5 rating scale was used to measure the differences, with 5 referring to ‘agree strongly’ and 1 referring to ‘disagree strongly’. The most important factor is that academic freedom is of fundamental important to the future wellbeing of society (4.4). To a large extent, academics stated that higher education has a key role to play in increasing the competitiveness of business, which might positively influence the interactions between academics and firms (3.9). Nevertheless, academics were also more likely to consider that, over the past few years, universities have gone too far in attempting to meet the needs of industry (3.2). In general, academics tended to disagree that academia should focus on basic research and should not be concerned with its actual or potential application (2.4).

Figure 4: Extent to which agree with statements about relationships with external organisations (mean score)4

Concluding remarks

In this paper, we have examined the current state of university knowledge networks in Ireland, with the aim to understand the intensity and diversity of interactions between academics and business and the community.

Staff working at Ireland’s HEIs showed differences in how intensively they engaged in various types of networks, and IP-related activities were the least frequent type of interaction.

Our respondents were more closely engaged with the private sector firms than with the public sector organisations, showing that university-industry engagement in Ireland is in a relatively good position. Nevertheless, university and IoT staff were much more closely engaged with national and regional government bodies and much less intensively engaged with international organisations, many of which are important sources for competitive based research funding. In the architecture of world science, a major change has been the expansion of the global networks, and thus getting closely integrated into them becomes an important factor of maintaining research excellence.

In general, university staff were positive about the role higher education should play in supporting business development and regional growth, but they were, at the same time, concerned about the detriment of their core teaching and research roles as a result of ‘too much’ focus being put on meeting the needs of industry.

Our findings could also be of relevance to policies in higher education, innovation and knowledge-based economy. As argued, the policy focus, which has mainly been on capacity building of HEIs and on collaborations between HEIs, has recently shifted towards engagement between the higher education sector and the wider society. What this paper has found could be used as a first step to build a more comprehensive understanding of knowledge exchange activities between Ireland’s HEIs and their external partners.


There has been an extensive body of literature investigating the importance of foreign direct investments (FDIs) in the Irish economy. Since the 1960s onwards, the continuing dedication of the Irish government to attracting investments from overseas, in particular from the U.S., has transformed the country significantly.

In terms of GDP per capita, Ireland has made impressive progress during the last few decades, climbing from one of the poorest countries in western Europe to one of the richest in the world. As recent data from World Bank shows, Ireland’s GDP per capita (current US $) in 2012 stood at 45,921, in comparison to 38,920 in the UK.

Much of the extant literature attributes the economic development of Ireland to the success of attraction of FDIs, which could be evidenced by the fact that “the overall stock of FDI in Ireland has averaged just below 100% of GDP over the 10-year period from 1999 to 2009, reaching a peak of 149% of GDP in 2002” (Gray et al., 2010).

In their book entitled “Economic Analysis of Ireland’s Comparative Advantages for Foreign Investment”, Gray et al. (2010) selected a list of milestones in Irish policy which resulted in the attraction of multinationals. Figure 1 below shows the detail.

Figure 1 Selected milestones in Irish policy which have impacted on foreign investment

Figure 1

Source: Adapted from Gray et al. (2010).

Nevertheless, there has always been some concern with regard to an increased dependency on foreign investment. Some have argued that a practical matter for Ireland is that it has less and less room for pursuing independent economic policies. For many others, there is a question mark over the long-term impacts of FDIs on the Irish economy, especially in the face of declining flows of foreign investment after the 2008 economic crisis.

The underlying reason for these worries is related to the mobility of FDIs. Understandably, FDIs are attracted into a certain region or nation due to a number of comparative advantages demonstrated by that area. When those comparative advantages diminish or become unsustainable, FDIs may be relocated into wherever else showing them. In order to attract new FDIs and to maintain current investments, a crucial task is to understand what key elements of Ireland have been perceived by multinationals as of significant strength.

A comprehensive survey with the chief executives of foreign-owned plants in Ireland was conducted by Indecon to capture what are the key factors which determine the relative attractiveness of Ireland as a location for FDIs. The main results of the Indecon survey have been presented, in much detail, by Gray et al. (2010) and are shown here.

Figure 2 Foreign firms’ rating on elements of comparative advantage of Ireland for investment

Figure 2

Source: Adapted from Gray et al. (2010).

Whilst it remains unclear for us to say whether the foreign firms surveyed are representative enough of the whole sector, Figure 2 indeed shows some interesting results. The top three elements perceived by foreign firms as significant strengths are comparative corporate tax rate, English-speaking population and government support for foreign direct investment. At a less level, foreign firms also regard skilled employees, membership of Euro and stability of exchange rates, flexible labour force and commitment from Industrial Development Agency as significant strengths in Ireland. Quality of universities and quality of research and development (R&D) are the two factors that are least frequently perceived by foreign firms as where Ireland has significant strength and as their reason to make the investment decision.

It is obvious that universities, and probably the higher education sector as a whole, have not become a key factor, in relative to elements such as corporate tax rate, considered by those multinationals when they attempt to decide whether or not to invest in Ireland. Although it is too arbitrary to assert now that foreign firms do not collaborate closely with Irish universities, it is fair to say that how companies perceive the relative importance of university research and development (R&D) would to a certain extent influence their later decision on working with those universities.

(To be continued…)