Despite increasing awareness towards the important role that universities play in society and the economy through their third missions – of regional development, innovation, outreach, etc. – a series of key challenges remain largely unaddressed. Structurally, a balance needs to be achieved between the core tasks of teaching and research, which take the bulk of the time for academic staff, and third-mission functions. This is easier said than done, but there are plenty of examples of successful endeavors when core and peripheral activities are coupled with one another (as, for example, depicted in the EJHE 5(3) 2015 special issue “Institutionalizing Universities’ Third Mission”).
A major aspect in this respect is to achieve a situation where third mission tasks complement and reinforce core activities. For example, there is evidence (in selected fields) suggesting that the most prolific academic writers are also the ones more actively engaged with external partners such as industry. Yet, the question remains, how to take advantage of this situation without creating a scenario where staff becomes overwhelmed with additional work. Within universities and other types of higher education institutions, more can be done in the ways in which engaged academics are recognized and reward. Such individuals can, for example, act as mentors for their younger peers, and play an important role in opening-up their campuses and the research groups they represent to the outside world. That being said, they also face a series of cultural barriers associated with the fact that third-mission tasks are generally perceived by the academic profession as “nice to have” and thus less prestigious in nature. It is in this respect that a tighter coupling between core and peripheral activities is of paramount importance.
In an environment increasingly characterized by resource scarcities and fiercer competition – for talent, funding, prestige, etc. – the third mission broadly speaking, and if properly managed, offers an unprecedented opportunity to academic communities and administrators alike to not only tap into new resource and knowledge pools but equally important to link up more closely with the outside world. Yet, for this to happen, careful attention needs to be paid towards designing internal (university) and external (government agencies) systems (rules and regulations) and incentives (including career progression) that reinforce and upscale the daily efforts by engaged academics. However, no silver bullet or ‘one size fits all’ exists here, so university managers need to take into account the unique characteristics of the context or environment – global, national and local – in which their institutions operate. That being said, it is clear that for this strategy to work it is key (basic ground-rules) to: 1) actively engage the academic heartland into the process, which should be managed both bottom-up and top-down; 2) integrate the third mission as part of the strategic framework of both the respective national systems (legal acts and academic profession) and the institutions; and 3) devise internal mechanisms that positively reinforce core and peripheral tasks in ways that deliver tangible value for individual academics, universities and external stakeholders groups.