The role of regional universities in local development *
In 2011–2014, a study of the role of regional higher education institutions in local development was conducted within the framework of research and innovation policy monitoring programme TIPS. The head of the work group was Garri Raagmaa, Associate Professor of the University of Tartu. The report analysed what role of the units of public universities that are located outside Tallinn and Tartu have in regional development, and gave recommendations on enhancing the regional innovation system and making better use of the potential of universities.
Regional colleges of universities mostly emerged in Estonia in the end of the 1990s. There was no national policy to regulate the process of establishing such colleges, the decisions were mainly born as a result of the agreement between the local initiative and the universities. Two decades later, in 2016, there are seven units of public universities outside Tallinn and Tartu, which form a regional network with considerable human capital (367 employees, 3229 students), through which the universities direct their regional activities and are partners to entrepreneurs, local governments and development institutions throughout Estonia.
Development of the network of regional centres of excellence is an important step in improving the business environment of regions. It has expanded the cooperation of local companies and universities. The areas the centres of excellence focus on are related to the regional growth areas that are to be developed as a priority according to the Regional Development Strategy of Estonia for 2014–2020, and to the subjects taught at the universities.
During the studying of the role of regional higher education institutions, interviews with key persons were conducted in order to gather, in addition to quantitative data, also qualitative information about the activities and roles of regional colleges in counties. 102 key persons, leaders of the regional institutions, were interviewed. The questions were grouped into five categories: regional identity, social capital, human capital, innovation and leadership quality.
From these categories, social capital, identity and leadership quality were assessed as above average, but human capital and innovation were assessed more critically. When the same data were grouped by counties with and without higher educational institutions, a significant difference can be seen in assessments to innovation. It may be assumed that the activities around colleges and centres of excellence had an impact on shaping these assessments. Regional development centres, vocational schools and city governments were appreciated as important institutions that develop entrepreneurship. In the counties with colleges, higher education institutions were, on the average, considered as important entrepreneurship development institutions as the city governments. Thus it can be said that in the short time they have been functioning, the colleges of universities have achieved a trustworthy place among the regional entrepreneurship development institutions.
The division of roles and resources in regional development activities should be defined in more detail between the ministries, universities and regional development institutions. In addition to teaching and research and development activities, the human resources of regional colleges could also be used in more significant roles in planning the development of regions.
The effectiveness of regional innovation system is ensured by its territorial coverage. The regional colleges of universities that are dispersed across Estonia, together with the regional development centres and in cooperation with them, should be the key institutions of the innovation system covering the whole country in the roles of providers of training, centres of excellence related to region-specific entrepreneurship, and centres of innovation and creativity.
* Peer-reviewed article.