Fostering regional and innovation ecosystems through strengthening professional higher education and related research activities has been an imperative in recent years in Europe and globally. I have been personally involved both as a researcher, and expert adviser in understanding how and through which mechanisms can this be achieved. In recent years, I have been following and supporting the development of a program for the Modernization and Valorization of Polytechnic Institutes in Portugal. The comprehensive policy program was launched in 2016 at the initiative of the Portuguese Government and acts in more than fifty cities all over Portugal and aims to: a) promote local innovation partnerships through collaborative initiatives and co-creation mechanisms between polytechnics, local communities and a wide variety of small and medium size companies; b) foster problem based and practice oriented learning and research approaches to help innovate in professional higher education; and c) to secure knowledge sharing on educational practices and professional development across Europe through international collaboration among regional-based partnerships.
The policy program is built on inclusive, open and fully participatory community principles. It is a symbol of participatory policymaking in Europe centered around dialogue, negotiation and decision making among and between academic leaders and teachers/researchers, students, experts from local communities and companies in a wide variety of sectors, as well as across different countries. Its consequences are already greatly felt in Portugal, but it is predicated that the program will have far reaching consequences for the state of polytechnic education and research in Europe. Namely, it will promote internationalization of professional higher education which has mostly been local, while at the same time stimulate innovative research activities based on regional partnerships. This is expected to additionally strengthen the role of professional higher education institutions as intermediaries in regional and innovation ecosystems which has been recently discussed by me and my colleague Hugo Horta in “Training students for new jobs: Intermediary role of technical and vocational higher education”.
In the first phase of the program, targeted visits of polytechnic representatives to Finland, Netherlands, Ireland and Switzerland were stimulated. It was expected that this experience would lead to learning and gaining experience about the emerging professional higher education and related practice-based research activities in Europe. The second phase involved knowledge dissemination workshops, organized throughout the country and at different institutions, through which acquired knowledge and developments in other visited countries were shared. These workshops stimulated dialogues about lessons learned, but they also aimed to explore the current state of professional higher education and related research activities in Europe through tutorials and potential opportunities for improvement and innovation based on experience, yet within the limits of the national socioeconomic context.
The third phase of the program consisted of introducing targeted initiatives exploring aforementioned opportunities and promoting change at Portuguese polytechnics. The initiatives concentrated around the promotion of funded collaborative research projects between polytechnics and local industry and community, setting up creative research labs to promote polytechnics’ integration with their region through problem based and practice oriented research activities, and the promotion of short cycle technological courses resting on innovative learning methodologies promoting problem based and practice oriented research. It has involved the use of European structural funds and national funds in a total of 46 million Euros for a period of 18 months.
The current phase concentrates on the promotion of internationalization activities and partnerships between European professional higher education institutions and associated research groups. Within this framework, the Portuguese Minister of Science, Technology, and Higher Education recently visited Dutch polytechnics in Rotterdam and Leeuwarden and agreed on strategic international partnerships promoting long term collaborative activities between polytechnic institutions in Europe.
These international partnerships are critical in sharing learning perspectives and developments in professions to train resilient and engaged students and professionals of the future. It is expected that the partnerships will benefit students by fostering dual and joint programs, exchange in research projects among others, and contribute in gaining a more rounded understanding of their profession. Professions are not local but globally developed and by exposing students and staff to the same profession, yet in different environments and contexts, and through problem based and practice oriented research activities, the idea is that they will be able to advance the state of the profession in their local and regional contexts within Portugal.
Sandra Hasanefendic is a double doctoral degree student from the Vrije University in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and ISCTE – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL) in Portugal. She researches organizational behavior in higher education. Her focus lies on non-university higher education (or professional higher education) and responses to policy pressures regarding research and innovation in education and training. Sandra also teaches, consults and advises policymakers on issues relevant to advancement of professional higher education and research activities in Portugal and the Netherlands.