Raising competitiveness and innovation potentials
In many industrial fields Europe is finding it increasingly difficult to compete with low-cost countries that are successfully challenging the value proposition of European technologies. European welfare is nevertheless still dependent on its industries and mechanical engineering know-how in general. In order to compete now and in the future the European Union, industrial companies and educational institutions have to think out of the box and create new synergies that foster the creation of competitive advantages. A recently completed EU funded project named Reshaped Partnerships for Competitiveness and Innovation Potentials in Mechanical Engineering (RePCI), which was coordinated by the JAMK University of Applied Sciences in Finland, is a good example of such thinking.
Since the inception of the EU it has provided funding for universities and companies via several different programmes. The Erasmus program, which was established in 1987 and is currently continuing under the Erasmus+ umbrella, is the EU’s flagship education and training programme in the field of higher education. It not only supports mobility, but also provides co-funding to higher education institutions (HEI) through transnational cooperation projects. Within Erasmus the Life Long Learning Programme provides funding for higher education purposes in Europe. There is also large scale national funding available for universities. These resources have, however, not been optimally utilized to support the competitiveness of industrial companies and one of the purposes of RePCI project was to find and use those resources more effectively and in new way.
Participants from Finland, Hungary, Romania and Germany
The JAMK University of Applied Sciences in Jyväksylä, Finland led the EU funded RePCI project from 2013 to 2015. The RePCI project was tasked with creating a new strategic cooperation model between universities and industry that does not rely on individual interests and/or particular cases. The project participants included JAMK and Elomatic from Finland, Miskolc University, Konecranes and Fux from Hungary, Cluc-Napoca University and Prototip from Romania, as well as the Esslingen University of Applied Science in Germany. Festo from Germany participated in the project without EU funding.
The effectiveness of the cooperation was based on commonly selected competence areas between the companies and universities. The crux of the idea is that universities are able develop their educational offering better when they are thoroughly familiar with the competence requirements of industry players.
During the RePCI project cooperation agreements were signed between the universities and partner companies where the strategic areas of cooperation and the commitment to a systematic approach were confirmed. SWOT analyses of the partner companies and universities were conducted and served as the basis for competence development, while action plans based on the common areas of development were also agreed.
The RePCI project allowed all participants to become more familiar with how other European HEIs cooperate with industry players. This information is extremely useful when planning new projects and cooperation activities. The possibility to benchmark teaching at HEIs in different countries and student competencies internationally is important for international companies and HEIs.
Another significant achievement of the project was the acquisition of the information and connections required for international student exchange. During the RePCI project student groups worked together on partner company tasks.
Product R&D projects in university laboratories
A further useful aspect of RePCI was that it provided the partner companies with information regarding the use of laboratory capacities at foreign universities for product research and development projects. The key point was understanding that HEIs are not only a source for new engineers, but have the potential to be partners in a continuous dialog about the future competencies required in the competitive global market of mechanical engineering products.
A competence coaching concept was also tested in Hungary and Romania during RePCI. The concept is based on the use of pedagogical approaches used in HEI institutions in the development of knowledge in partner companies. Staff from the HEIs worked as coaches in training projects inside partner companies. As a result the first competence matrix of job descriptions was created, which outlined what skills are required by industry players going forward. The industrial partners were also involved in ensuring that these identified competences were included as intended in the teaching programs.
A key result of the project was that it deepened the cooperation between the universities and companies involved and elevated the cooperation from an operational level to a more strategic level. Both the HEIs and their partner companies will reap the benefits of the deeper strategic cooperation over the long-term.
In some countries legislation needs to be adjusted to make the cooperation between educational institutions and companies easier. Development work is also required to identify the optimal interface and how to retain flexibility in scheduling. It is clear, however, that precisely the kind of novel cooperation seen during the RePCI project is what is needed on a much larger scale to bolster European competitiveness.
Author: Arto Sampo
When universities are thoroughly familiar with the competence requirements of industry players they can develop a better educational offering.