Higher education institutions as drivers of regional development
In the globalising and increasingly knowledge-based economy, higher education institutions (HEI) are becoming ever more important in transferring, sharing and applying knowledge and skills. Regional HEIs may function as global pipelines, gathering knowledge from around the world and creating a buzz by translating, adapting and spreading this knowledge; all this is creating a forum for discussing crucial developments of regional strategies.
In the Nordic countries, regional HEIs and university centres serve as instruments of targeted regional and innovation policy. Despite low population density, coordination with other policies has led to the most balanced spatial development in Europe. In Estonia, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, intensive economic restructuring and the pursuit of sector policies that do not take into account regional balance have led to one of the least balanced regional developments in Europe.
The establishment of Estonian regional HEIs was based on the increased demand for highly educated specialists in the 1990s, large numbers of young people, new management systems, and introduction of market principles in education. Despite all this, the deciding factor in actually setting up the regional colleges of Estonian public universities was the will of the counties and the local governments. The result is a regional network of HEIs with considerable human capital, which constitutes a significant partner to regional development institutions, local governments, and businesses.
Over the last decade, Estonian regional colleges have increasingly begun to fulfil the role of regional innovation and development agents. One way of promoting regional development has been the establishment of competence centres at the HEIs. These have increased the cooperation between local businesses and the universities, just like the HEI employee involvement in social networks and local politics has increased communication between the universities and local communities, and has improved the quality of decision-making.
Declining student numbers, fragmented and under-financed local administration, and the mainly project-based development policies that have remained sectorial mean that the long-term future of the regional HEIs in Estonia remains uncertain. In order to keep regional HEIs and the Estonian Regional Innovation System from dilapidating, the role of the regional colleges in national and regional innovation policy needs to be specified. There are three applicable models. Plan A would continue the public university branch scheme but should reach a detailed understanding on their respective roles in regional development activities, and ensure relevant funding. Plan B would be a (Nordic) regional innovation system model: colleges, vocational training centres and high schools would be managed by municipalities or their associations, while the ministries would design nation-wide strategic agendas and provide relevant instruments. However, this would require a far more capable local governance, i.e. a radical administrative reform. Plan C would be a national innovation system model which would integrate the regional high schools, vocational training centres, colleges, and business centres in order to ensure the necessary workforce and business environment for enterprises. This, however, would require a much broader cooperation between ministerial silos, as well as the establishment of strong regional development structures (e.g. planning regions).