Challenges in addressing wicked problems in collaboration with external stakeholders in higher professional education (cloud 14)

written by Egide Maassen PhD, senior policy advisor research & education, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences

Establishing multidisciplinary collaboration in learning communities by universities, businesses and a variety of other stakeholders in the triple or even quadruple helix is a challenge. The system complexity and relational dynamics of learning communities are challenging, due to multiple levels of learning (in and between organizations), different levels of stakeholder engagement, trust and ownership, different interests and reciprocity. Such collaboration efforts are, nevertheless, hugely important in order to address wicked challenges such as the design of smart sustainable cities, sustainable development, and reducing social inequality. In this blog, I highlight several (selected) challenges for Higher Professional Education Institutes (HPEIs) and external stakeholders, as results from Cloud 14 at the EAPRIL conference in November 2021. 

The goals of collaboration are numerous and include multiple value creation, knowledge development, innovation and evidence based interventions. However, these goals vary for schools, researchers and companies. Schools strive for adaptive curricula and well-prepared graduates; researchers strive for knowledge development that is practically relevant, and companies strive for successful product development and innovation. Apart from aligning these different interests and goals, there are several other challenges at play. Convening is crucial, in order to attract the best partners who are willing and able to participate. A shared vision on the future of the collaboration helps to stimulate commitment, shared ownership and positive sensemaking. The involvement of researchers, lecturers and students from a variety of relevant programs contribute to a multidisciplinary approach. 

However, representatives from HPEIs argue that it is often difficult to create space and deliver human capacity for extracurricular activities, such as in public-private partnerships. It is also argued that structural collaboration with the private sector is not always sufficiently supported by the boards, deans and directors of HPEIs. Despite these difficulties, HPEIs often tend to dominate collaboration efforts with companies, which raises questions about conducive governance. In addition, HPEIs have complex organizational structures and involve a lot of fragmentation and bureaucracy, which is difficult to understand and to manage for external stakeholders. A different time orientation between HPEIs and private companies is also hampering collaboration. For instance, the lead time of curricula at HPEIs is quite long and offers little opportunities for companies to achieve quick wins that can be marketed in the short term.

Stakeholders from the private sector, on the other hand, are sometimes reluctant to share their knowledge and expertise, as it represents an important competitive advantage for them. Another challenge is at play when bigger and smaller companies are involved; bigger companies tend to dominate the collaboration, often at the cost of the interests of smaller companies. Client – supplier relationships between HPEIs and businesses are not considered useful, as the benefits of such relationships are usually one-sided. These are some important challenges which require careful consideration and appropriate action.