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HEInnovate: Not about scoring but engaging

Entrepreneurship is not such a popular concept in academia for the commercial connotation it has and universities tend to reject engagement in entrepreneurship-related practices. When in November 2013 the European Commission (EC) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launched HEInnovate, it was described as an online self-assessment tool designed to support and guide higher education institutions (HEIs) on innovative and effective management. Based on a framework of an entrepreneurial higher education institution, HEInnovate offers free assessment and provides examples of good practice in innovation and effective management at higher education institutions across Europe. In order to understand better how HEInnovate works, ACA spoke with Georgi Dimitrov of the European Commission, who shared with us the underlying ideas of HEInnovate, the experiences and the lessons learned one year after its launch.
Can you tell us more about the tool and its development?

The initial idea was to develop a set of recommendations for universities on innovation and entrepreneurship, with a top down approach. My feeling was that, without a strong mandate in education, the European Commission should turn this around into a bottom-up approach and invite universities to engage with this project. Developing a self-assessment tool instead of an external evaluation instrument was innovation in itself and we knew that some higher education institutions were already interested in such a tool.
In addition to the online self-assessment, we piloted in Bulgaria an initiative of external review with the OECD. The OECD and the ministries selected a number of universities to be reviewed in-depth against the same framework used for the self-assessment. The feedback after this initial exercise was very good so we plan to involve five more countries in the next two years. 

Can you elaborate more on the idea of an entrepreneurial higher education institution promoted by HEInnovate?

This question is raised often and at different levels, by policy makers, institutions and students alike. People tend to link entrepreneurship only with commercialisation and a managerial approach, but this is not what we propose as the entrepreneurial HEI model. I find this to be more a question of semantics. ‘Entrepreneurial’ may not be the ideal word for the message we are trying to convey. An innovative HEI is much closer to the ideas we encourage. We mean the decentralisation of power and competence and encouraging students and staff to show enterprise and creativity. In a word, it is about empowering. Second, we mean activities directed towards learning and knowledge production. The ‘business element’ could be included but it this is not the only measure of institutions’ activities. Very important but difficult to measure is the creation of public value. Offering opportunities which accommodate a variety of interests and where students can engage and create instead of being passive listeners is extremely important. Let us say that the institution should be a system of co-creation and we believe that it is up to each individual institution how they go about it. 

You recently marked the first anniversary of HEInnovate. What has been done during its first year?

We marked the first anniversary by a very successful high-level event in Portugal. The feedback we received was excellent. So far, around 500 institutions have been involved in the self-assessment and around 100 took part in the events we organised. Perhaps around 40 or 50 are using the tool for their projects, but this is difficult to tell because the most interesting things happen before we know about them. We only learn about some good practices in our events but with the open source approach that we opted for one has to be fine with not being in control. For example, we heard a testimonial from a polytechnic in Portugal about their experience with using HEInnovate for strategic development. Users also see it as an excellent communication tool because it allows them to sit together with their colleagues and discuss things they wanted to discuss anyway but lacked a format. 

We are trying to encourage the early adopters to use the tool and then let the tool and actions speak for themselves. We are also trying to overcome the’ north-south divide’ thinking. A lot interesting things are happening everywhere in Europe but people may not pay enough attention or do not have enough visibility. We think that there is a lot of unexplored potential and this seems to be the case based on our experience and the type of feedback we get.  

In light of the worldwide use of rankings for status building and comparison among higher education institutions, how do you argue for the self-assessment approach of HEInnovate?

My argument for self-assessment is that, in principle, universities dislike rankings but I understand that they are dependent on them. Rankings do not capture the bigger picture of what university is today and hardly reflect the reality of a university’s contribution to innovation and society. Ranking implies external control, which universities do not like either. 

With HEInnovate, we encourage institutions to take control. HEInnovate is not about assessment and validation but about being engaged in a process and doing something about it once the initial process of self-assessment is over. The subjectivity of self-assessment is often taken to question the value of the tool, but this is the approach we embrace and see as a plus. Institutions have all the freedom to decide how they want to work with the tool. 

The tool provides a comprehensive framework for self-assessment but it also comes across as quite idealistic. Given that it serves as guidance, how should it be used to benefit institutions?

I think that the comprehensive approach is one its great strengths. It is a toolkit comprising all the relevant parts. Conceptually, the framework presents a higher education institution as a matrix of interdependencies instead of a silos type of structure with isolated units. It is important to recognise the interdependencies within institutions and beyond, and to reinforce this way of thinking.

The tool is not perfect, of course, but despite its shortcomings, it can be useful as guidance. We are working on its improvement and the next revision will take place at the beginning of 2015. It is idealistic, but the type of institution it describes is imagined as the ideal type which is not supposed to be reached but strived for. It is not about scoring but engaging. This is very important to understand. 


Learn more: HEInnovate


Georgi Dimitrov is a Policy Officer at the European Commission, Directorate General for Education and Culture. He is responsible for managing HEInnovate. He is further managing the development of a sound evidence base for policy initiatives related to innovation and higher education; and entrepreneurship and higher education. He was involved in various roles in setting up the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a recent initiative of the EU addressing innovation by integrating education, research and business activities.