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The university as economic engine

There's growing interest in the role of the university as a tool for regional development, but the impact is hard to measure, warns expert Mario Polèse


The expression “knowledge mobilization” has been the talk of the town lately among researchers and funding agencies. And yet, this concept – in which knowledge stemming from university research is transformed into concrete actions that serve the interests of society – is far from new. “Governments and universities have always looked for ways to bridge the gap between academics and the ‘real world'” observes Mario Polèse, a professor of international renown at the Centre for Urbanization, Culture and Society at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Montreal.

Whether researchers are interested in knowledge mobilization or networking with the broader community, they need to have their finger on the pulse of society and its needs, explains Dr. Polèse. “We end up with our heads in the clouds if our work is limited to cold statistics, which play an important role but are not as nuanced as the realities on the ground.”

If there is a researcher out there who is aware of this, it is Mario Polèse. An expert in the territorial dynamics of economic activities, regional economic development policy and big city economies, he has been criss-crossing the country to feed his analyses. He’s lost count of the number of projects and studies he has conducted for the Canadian and Quebec governments, various community groups, the network of Sociétés d’aide au développement des collectivités du Québec, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and others.

While knowledge mobilization is as important to the interests of society as it is to researchers, its scope is difficult to grasp, particularly in outlying regions. Dr. Polèse has studied the impact of universities on regional economic development for a long time. In July 1979, he published an exploratory study on the subject, in which he stressed that the impact of universities, as instruments for regional economic potential, is highly complex and difficult to define.

Twenty-nine years later, he remains steadfast in his conclusion: “The effects of the presence of a university and its researchers in a region depend on the characteristics of the institution, the territory and the population. Each case is unique.”

Examples to illustrate his point abound. Located in northern Finland, about 150 kilometres from the Arctic Circle, the town of Oulu should be in decline, in keeping with the surrounding towns that have fallen victim to the rural exodus. Instead, it has become one of the country’s leading technological poles thanks to its university, Oulun Yliopisto.

“It’s an exceptional case,” says Dr. Polèse. “Its peripheral location and climate should have been a ball and chain for Oulu. But Finland’s second largest ‘full-scale’ university was founded there in the 20th century. ‘Full-scale’ means that it has a faculty of engineering and a faculty of medicine.”

According to Dr. Polèse, a full-scale university can hold back, even turn around, the decline of a region. But he warns that this is not the norm, far from it. The characteristics of a particular region play a vital role. Sherbrooke, for example, enjoys robust development thanks to its many assets, including proximity to Montreal and the U.S. border – an ideal location for industry. The influence of Université de Sherbrooke, a full-scale university, only serves to bolster the success of the city and its surrounding region.

It’s a whole other story for the regional universities of the Université du Québec network in Chicoutimi, Rimouski and Abitibi-Témiscamingue. “With all due respect, these institutions are small universities that specialize in the humanities and social sciences. None of them has a faculty of medicine or engineering. Of course, the presence of a regional university is a good thing, but it’s not enough to drive the development of these regions, which are becoming more and more peripheral in a continental context. The situation is serious.”

But fatalism is not Mario Polèse’s style. He is convinced that these regions will not die out even though their populations will shrink – a reality that authorities will have to grapple with. “We have to stop thinking that a demographic slump will automatically impoverish a region and that, inversely, economic development strategies will stop this decline. It’s simply not true.”

This is the argument Dr. Polèse put forward with Richard Shearmur in a study published in the journal Papers in Regional Science in March 2006, entitled “Why some regions will decline: A Canadian case study with thoughts on local development strategies.” Dr. Polèse argues that these regions must devise development strategies based on their lower population levels.

“Some years ago, I attended a seminar in northern Ontario where things were really going badly. I was sitting beside a local development officer for Thunder Bay, who told me that the population was estimated at 120,000, but that in about 40 years, it would drop to 80,000. Their goal was to create a solid economic base that would ensure a good level of income, employment and quality of life for those 80,000 residents.”

Other regions must adopt the same attitude, “since we cannot change their geographic location or reverse their demographic decline,” explains Dr. Polèse. This new way of thinking is all the more crucial given that universities are sometimes of no help, even with the best intentions in the world.

This is the case in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which is “a disaster, especially around Sydney,” according to Dr. Polèse. “This is a cold remote region with an economy based on coal mining. As we know, mining regions have always had difficulty reinventing themselves. The result it that young people want to make their lives elsewhere.” Meanwhile the University of Cape Breton can only do so much, he argues. “The university is doing incredible work with young people, but they are training people who intend to leave. I interviewed several students on the campus and they all planned to ship out after they graduate.”

The effectiveness of the support a university provides to its region is therefore a function of a particular economic climate, as is the case of the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development at Memorial University. Its objective is to spur Newfoundland and Labrador’s social and economic development. According to Dr. Polèse, knowledge mobilization has found fertile ground there. The success of a group like the Harris Centre rides on the people who work there and the context in which it operates. “It must be well connected to the political powers – the consumer of research-based knowledge – and be able to count on both intellectual and entrepreneurial leadership.”

Dr. Polèse thinks that Rob Greenwood, the director of the Harris Centre, is leadership personified. “Behind an organization like the Harris Centre, there are always one of two people who are much like missionaries and who have the personal ability to ‘mobilize’ and convince academics, business people, community groups and politicians to work together. This is what we call knowledge mobilization. And it’s no easy task. You have to have the kind of faith that Rob Greenwood has to succeed.”

Based on various examples, Dr. Polèse is convinced that, with a few exceptions, universities generally play a marginal but positive role in the social and economic development of the regions. Their mere physical presence constitutes an important symbol in the regional psyche. “In an era that values the knowledge economy, universities bestow a certain prestige on a region, much like the church once did. Without a university, a region feels a bit like an orphan without a true sense of identity,” says Dr. Polèse.

He believes the best way for universities to put wind in the sails of the regions is by remaining true to their original mission: training students and conducting research. If they can do these two things well, knowledge mobilization will be the ripple effect. But he warns them not to put the horse before the cart. “Universities should not function like motors for economic development. This is what they may become one day, when community organizations and government call on the expertise of their researchers. But that role must accrue to them through their mission to teach and do research, and not the other way around,” says Dr. Polèse.

Marie Lambert-Chan
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  1. Miguel A. Alvarez / May 7, 2010 at 19:51

    The mere presence of a university in a city puts it in another hierarchy. I would like to read the study

    made by Dr. Polese in 1979, can you please tell me

    where it was published?