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Universities and Universities of Applied Science (UAS) in the Regional Innovation System – A Germany-wide Study


Today’s economists postulate that innovation is a result of multiple regional linked actors (Acs 2002, p. ix). The “Regional Systems of Innovation” approach (RIS) is based on this idea as it considers the region as a key element of regional development (Freeman 1988; Lundvall 1988; Nelson 1993). The “knowledge application and exploitation sub-system” (e.g. firms) and the “knowledge generation and diffusion sub-system” (e.g. research facilities) are the central elements of this system (Autio 1998, p. 133). The latter is especially represented by higher education institutions[1], which are within the investigation scope of this research.

They are producers and collectors of knowledge. In combination with their supra-regional networks they hold a special position in the regional innovation system. State-funded Universities and UAS are the most important actors within the German higher education system.

The main question of this study was how these two players are positioned within the regional innovation system. More specifically, how intensively the individual knowledge transfer channels are used and at what range the impact of the various transfer forms could be observed. To answer these research questions, a nationwide survey of professors was performed in Germany. The survey yielded a very high return figure of 7,500 responses. The findings therefore indicate a high degree of generalizability and validity.

Prior to the survey, a comprehensive research of literature related to Universities and UAS was undertaken in order to gain a holistic picture of the status quo of both institution types.

Universities are more strongly oriented towards research and teaching, whereas UAS are more practice-oriented. The professional focus of professors at UAS is on teaching, while research and teaching are of relatively equal importance in Universities. UAS focus more on interaction with the business community, whereas basic science is the main focal point of Universities. Compared to Universities, UAS have relatively unfavourable conditions for transfer activities in terms of both human and financial resources. In addition, they have a lower operating size and should, therefore, in the words of Torre (2008, p. 886), be “[…] tied to their territories […]”. The spatial distribution of UAS is tighter, which affirmed the expectations that UAS would have a stronger relationship with their region. These results are comparable to the results of several previous studies which attested to a higher regional focus on UAS.

These central expectations regarding Universities and UAS were largely confirmed by the survey.

The greater tendency of Universities to orientate towards fundamental research is confirmed by a relatively high number of scientific publications and supervised PhD theses, the very high importance of cooperation with other academic institutions, the relatively low importance of partnerships with private companies and the greater relevance of spin-offs enterprises with a high research orientation compared to those with a low research orientation.

The greater practical orientation of UAS is verified particularly in the larger scope of practice actors (e.g. lectures, courses or seminars through practical actors; projects with / for practical actors in coursework; connection via dual study programs etc.) included in the teaching curriculum, the greater importance of cooperation with private enterprises and a higher relevance of spin-offs with a low research orientation compared to those with a high research orientation. The strong tendency of UAS to cooperate with companies applies across all company sizes. Interestingly, in the case of Universities, cooperation with large enterprises was far more important than that with smaller enterprises, while no major differences regarding the size of the enterprises could be observed in the case of UAS. This suggests that in the case of university-business cooperation, professors at Universities place more importance on a certain level of absorptive capacity than UAS, which, it can be assumed, is due to the fact that large enterprises often have their own existing R&D facilities.

The exchange of knowledge in the form of university-business cooperation is an important factor in the creation of innovations. However, there are also obstacles to these exchanges: “[…S]um of the barriers to converting research into commercialized knowledge.” (Carlsson et al. 2007, p. 6) The results of the survey were able to demonstrate that these barriers included, in particular, a high teaching load and a lack of resources available to the professors. Professors at UAS are particularly affected here. While professors at Universities named bureaucratic obstacles on the part of companies as the second most important obstacle, this constraining factor is comparatively insignificant for professors at UAS (rank 8 of 15). This result also highlights the increased focus of UAS professors towards the private sector.

With respect to the scope and coverage of the studied knowledge transfer channels, it was found that these vary depending on the type of transfer channel, the transfer partners and the type of institution.

Apart from the founding of spin-off enterprises, the stronger connection of UAS professors to the region was generally confirmed.

It would, however, wrong to assume that the higher regional aspect of the transfer activities of UAS makes them a more important innovation factor for the region (Deilmann 1995, p. 20). The decisive factor, aside from elusive qualitative variables, is the actual emergence of the production of knowledge. The larger sizes and better facilities of Universities are expected to lead to increased outcomes (Fromhold-Eisebith 1992b, p. 121; Deilmann 1995, p. 20). In absolute terms, despite the higher regional approach on the part of UAS, presumably more knowledge flows into the region from Universities.

On the other hand, publication activities and exchanges with the scientific community (Audretsch et al. 2006, p. 122) – knowledge transfer channels preferably used by Universities -have a significantly supra-regional focus, while the exchange of tacit knowledge (e.g. cooperation between companies) – a focus of UAS – is characterised by a higher regional orientation. This suggests that knowledge created at Universities also flows further than the local region.

With increasing size of a company, the range of cooperation also increases, which can be explained by the better resource facilities of major companies and the fact that larger companies make greater use of their own research resources, while smaller companies tend to be more dependent on regional knowledge spill-over from Universities (Acs et al. 1994, p. 339; Gallaud/Torre 2005, p. 138; Torre 2008, p. 886). Professors at Universities demonstrate a relatively greater geographic range of cooperation with other scientific facilities than with large companies, the same applies to their counterparts at the UAS. This is not surprising, since research is developed on an international level. This emphasizes that scientific exchange works well even over longer distances (Ponds et al. 2007, p. 425; Pasternack 2013, p. 19).

Geographical proximity was of low importance compared to the other forms of proximity (cognitive, organisational, social and institutional) for both types of institutions. Geographical proximity was more important for the UAS than Universities, but relatively insignificant compared to the other forms of proximity. Relational proximity forms such as trust were classified as far more relevant by representatives of both institutions. This indicates that physical proximity is of rather indirect significance for innovation and interactive learning processes, in that it contributes rather to the strengthening of other forms of proximity (Boschma 2005, p. 71, see also Fritsch et al. 2008, p. 24). For example, institutional barriers between two different organisations (e.g. Universities and companies) could be overcome more easily by physical proximity.

It is often assumed in the literature (Florax 1992, p. 77; Florida 2002, p. 249) that higher education institutions can also influence the regional innovation process through soft factors such as cultural aspects, a quality of life, regional image etc. As the survey showed, UAS are able to achieve only minor noticeable effects in this compared to Universities. The reason may be assumed to be linked to the on average smaller operational size of the UAS.

Finally, the role both institutions occupy in the regional innovation system is summarised on the basis of the conceptual pairs listed. The first term in each case represents the Universities, the second the UAS: basic research orientation/application orientation, science/economics, research/teaching, supra-regional/regional.

One can observe that Universities and UAS have different, complementary comparative advantages. The conclusion of Koschatzky et al. (2011, p. 21 et seq.), cited due to his own findings, that a clear separation of functions between Universities and UAS no longer exists, cannot be confirmed by the author of the present study.

The Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat) believes the observed functional differentiation of both types of institutions to be a strength which should be preserved in the German scientific system (Wissenschaftsrat 2013; p. 27). Possible efforts to soften the institutional boundaries of both types of institutions should, therefore, be viewed critically (Holuscha 2012, p. 256 et seqq.).


The German version is already available in bookstores:

Warnecke, Christian: Universitäten und Fachhochschulen im regionalen Innovationssystem – Eine deutschlandweite Betrachtung – (RUFIS Studien Nr. 1/2016) Bochum 2016. ISBN 978-3-8196-1029-5, kart. 21 x 14,5 cm., XIII, 266 S.  € 34,90

Here you can find a comprehensive excerpt from the German version of this study:



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Acs, Zoltan J., David B. Audretsch, and Maryann P. Feldmann. 1994. “R & D Spillovers and Recipient Firm Size.” The Review of Economics and Statistics, 76(2): 336–40.

Audretsch, David B., Max C. Keilbach, and Erik Lehmann. 2006. Entrepreneurship and economic growth. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Autio, Erkko. 1998. “Evaluation of RTD in regional systems of innovation.” European Planning Studies, 6(2): 131–40.

Boschma, Ron A. 2005. “Proximity and Innovation: A Critical Assessment.” Regional Studies, 39(1): 61–74.

Carlsson, Bo, Zoltan J. Acs, David B. Audretsch, and Pontus Braunerhjelm. 2007. “The knowledge filter, entrepreneurship, and economic growth.” CESIS Electronic Working Paper Series 104.
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Deilmann, Benedikt. 1995. Wissens- und Technologietransfer als regionaler Innovationsfaktor. Ausgangsbedingungen, Probleme und Perspektiven am Beispiel der Hochschulen und Forschungseinrichtungen in den neuen Bundesländern. Dortmund: Dortmunder Vertrieb für Bau- und Planungsliteratur.

Dosi, Giovanni, Christopher Freeman, Richard Nelson, Gerald Silverberg, and Luc Soete, ed. 1988. Technical change and economic theory. London, New York: Pinter Publishers.

Florax, Raymond. 1992. The university: A regional booster? :. Economic impacts of academic knowledge infrastructure. Aldershot, Hants, England, Brookfield, Vt., USA: Avebury.

Florida, Richard. 2002. The rise of the creative class. And how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Freeman, Christopher. 1988. “Japan: a new national system of innovation?” In Technical change and economic theory, ed. Giovanni Dosi, Christopher Freeman, Richard Nelson, Gerald Silverberg, and Luc Soete, 330–48. London, New York: Pinter Publishers.

Fritsch, Michael, Tobias Henning, Viktor Slavtchev, and Norbert Steigenberger. 2008. “Hochschulen als regionaler Innovationsmotor?” Arbeitspapier, Demokratische und Soziale Hochschule 158. (accessed October 12, 2015).

Fromhold-Eisebith, Martina. 1992b. “Meßbarkeit und Messung des regionalen Wissens- und Technologietransers aus Hochschulen.” In Erfolgskontrollen in der Technologiepolitik, ed. Niedersächsisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, 117–36. Hannover.

Gallaud, Delphine and André Torre. 2005. “Geographical Proximity and the Diffusion of Knowledge. The case of SMEs in biotechnology.” In Rethinking regional innovation and change. Path dependency or regional breakthrough, ed. Gerhard Fuchs and Philip Shapira, 127–46. New York: Springer.

Holuscha, Elisabeth. 2012. “Das Prinzip Fachhochschule: Erfolg oder Scheitern? Eine Fallstudie am Beispiel Nordrhein‐Westfalen.” Dissertation. Marburg.

Koschatzky, Knut, Miriam Hufnagl, Henning Kroll, Stephanie Daimer, and Nicole Schulze. 2011. “Relevanz regionaler Aktivitäten für Hochschulen und das Wissenschaftssystem.” Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung ISI.

Lundvall, Bengt-Ake. 1988. “Innovation as an interactive process: from user-producer interaction to the national system of innovation.” In Technical change and economic theory, ed. Giovanni Dosi, Christopher Freeman, Richard Nelson, Gerald Silverberg, and Luc Soete, 349–69. London, New York: Pinter Publishers.

Nelson, Richard R. 1993. National innovation systems. A comparative analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pasternack, Peer. 2013. “Regionale Hochschulkooperationen mit außeruniversitären Forschungseinrichtungen.” In Regional gekoppelte Hochschulen. Die Potenziale von Forschung und Lehre für demografisch herausgeforderte Regionen. HoF-Handreichungen 2. Beiheft zu “die hochschule” 2013, ed. Peer Pasternack, 19–22. Halle: Institut für Hochschulforschung (HoF).

Ponds, Roderik, Frank van Oort, and Koen Frenken. 2007. “The geographical and institutional proximity of research collaboration.” Papers in Regional Science, 86(3).

Torre, André. 2008. “On the Role Played by Temporary Geographical Proximity in Knowledge Transmission.” Regional Studies, 42(6): 869–89.

Warnecke, Christian. 2015. “Geographical proximity in the nowledge transfer process.” In Mönchengladbacher Schriften zur wirtschaftswissenschaftlichen Praxis, Higher education institutions and regional development. Proceedings of the 3. ERSA International Workshop. 1st ed., ed. Rüdiger Hamm and Johannes Kopper, 161–79. Krefeld: Stünings Medien.

Warnecke, Christian. 2016. Ruhr-Forschungsinstitut für Innovations- und Strukturpolitik / Ruhr-Forschungsinstitut für Innovations- und Strukturpolitik. 2016, Nr. 1, Universitäten und Fachhochschulen im regionalen Innovationssystem. Eine deutschlandweite Betrachtung. Bochum: Universitätsverlag Brockmeyer.

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[1] Two disparate kinds of institutions are dominant in the German tertiary education system, namely Universities and UAS – which are individually characterized by diverging focus both in the structure and content of teaching and research. The focus in UAS gravitates toward applied teaching alongside application of taught theoretical knowledge. In contrast, Universities are fashioned for research hence theory based teaching is promoted (Warnecke 2015, p. 163).



A major part of the text above is from Warnecke 2016, chapter 8, which was translated into English. Thanks to Peter Alao for proof reading.

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