EUA Council for Doctoral Education


Opportunities and challenges of training “triple-helix knowledge workers” in collaborative doctoral programmes

Increasing interaction between universities, industry and government – the “triple-helix” model - creates new ways of training knowledge workers to meet labour market demands in the knowledge-based economy. Que Anh Dang and Marta Vizcaya Echano from Coventry University discuss how triple-helix partners seize the opportunities and overcome the challenges of co-constructing collaborative doctorates from their diverging perspectives.

Growing demands for new types of highly-skilled workers in the global knowledge economy and the hybridisation of functions and goals of universities, industry and government have impacted doctoral education and training in fundamental ways. Cooperation with diverse partners plays a key part in university internationalisation and entrepreneurship strategies. The “triple-helix” model, initiated by Henry Etzkowitz and Loet Leydesdorff, identifies key stakeholders and various methods for collaborative doctorates in order to sustain university activities at a time of declining public funding. This model emphasises knowledge production and exploitation through cooperation between industry, university and government, with the entrepreneurial university concept at its core.

The shifting dynamics in new doctoral provision between triple-helix partners, who do not only seek to co-fund doctorates but also actively co-shape research projects and programmes, challenge universities’ traditional position as the main knowledge producers and gatekeepers of doctoral training. This shift raises the questions of how universities seize the opportunities and overcome challenges in such partnerships; and how they undertake organisational changes to interact effectively with partners beyond academia.

Transactional benefits and transformational opportunities

In the Anglo-Saxon context, universities often expect tangible benefits from such collaborations: responsiveness to market demands, diversified revenues and increased research outputs. Focusing narrowly on short-term benefits might arguably lead to collaborations that remain transactional relationships in which universities are service providers and the partners are buyers of outputs.

In our view, triple-helix domestic and international collaborations bring about more transformational opportunities for innovation, excellence and differentiation. Seizing such opportunities requires moving beyond short-term transactional benefits towards a review of organisational practices. These partnership opportunities arise from the creation of new models of knowledge production, from research methodologies and subjects to programme frameworks. A deeper partnership requires substantial commitments beyond finances and staffing. It involves organisational changes at all levels: top-down leadership to articulate a vision and create suitable structures and resources; bottom-up feedback and initiatives; and close inter-departmental cooperation across the institution. It also requires a “can-do” culture in which staff are able and willing to engage with the creative scenarios and challenges arising in collaborative programme design.

The Janus face of collaborative doctoral programmes

The triple-helix model does have two faces. Besides ample opportunities, it also brings multiple challenges, which stem from multi-level governance, different agendas, priorities, cultures, frames of reference and diverse ways of conducting scientific research. These challenges manifest in each partnership type in different ways.

The university–domestic European government doctoral cooperation is often framed within “talent development” policy discourse aimed at attracting the best and brightest minds at home and from elsewhere. The university-foreign government collaborations are labelled as “capacity building” and “internationalisation”. A typical example is the scheme whereby doctoral candidates funded by the governments of developing countries pursue doctorates in a more advanced higher education system. Such schemes can stimulate the development of new types of research training, such as tailored cohort-based programmes and flexible pathways. Many European universities are facing the challenge of developing an in-depth understanding of the partner’s organisational culture and avoiding intellectual imperialism. A common strategy is to deploy skills and insights of diaspora and alumni coming from partner countries. The danger is in making them ambassadors and bridge-builders for winning the business, while the university itself does not review its current practices and actively learn from the partners. Another challenge is how to maintain a sense of collegiality between governmental officials and university academic and professional staff, instead of instilling an attitude of provider-customer relations.

Different sets of difficulties in designing collaborative programmes with industry are trust-building and negotiating core elements, such as co-funding, co-supervision, identification and selection of research projects, structured work placements and intellectual property rights (Figure 1: Industry – University collaboration in doctoral education and training).io

The companies are active in framing the research project, supervising doctoral candidates, and setting clear goals to ensure outputs have strong industry relevance in terms of marketable knowledge manifested as new products, technologies or services. These outputs foster the company’s commitment to the research project over time – a key variable determining successful collaborations. In other words, companies are redefining “quality” as “relevance”, which is not always how universities define it. Hence, the development towards the entrepreneurial university has also met with resistance and criticism.

Another key challenge faced by universities, industrial partners and doctoral researchers stem from different sets of expectations. The doctoral candidates are producers of new knowledge in collaborative projects, they are an important channel for knowledge transfer and network forging during their doctoral training and after graduation. However, while potential benefits are highlighted, the factors and complex processes shaping their research and training experiences are often neglected.

Their doctoral journey is a socialisation process shaping the identity and professional practices of future knowledge workers. Changing roles, environments and networks between academia and industry requires broader sets of competences and values that do not always develop spontaneously. The success of collaborative programmes depends largely on staff with interaction skills and experiences who can communicate across organisational and intellectual boundaries. They also need to design suitable training to increase exposure to real-life problems and emphasise entrepreneurial values and skills necessary for knowledge commercialisation. However, only a minority of university academics have first-hand experience in this field.

Shifting power relations

The power dynamics in triple-helix doctoral collaborations go beyond the question of who is in the driver’s seat. Building trustful and effective partnerships demands capability and willingness to transcend the binary of knowledge provider and funder to engage in programme co-creation and mutual learning. One way to achieve long term goals is to swap drivers and co-pilots along different stages of the journey. Such collegial collaborations create knowledge workers who are both autonomous and enterprising.

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Vizcaya Echano, Marta

Marta Vizcaya Echano is Collaborative PhD Programmes Manager at Coventry University’s Doctoral College and Centre for Research Capability and Development, and has previously managed TNE programmes at Coventry’s Academic Partnership Unit. She obtained a doctorate at The University of York with a Basque Government scholarship. Her professional and research interests include current trends in global higher education and the development of transnational research and education partnerships.

Dang, Que Anh

Que Anh Dang is Collaborative PhD Programmes Manager at Coventry University and an educational sociologist. She holds a PhD in higher education from Bristol University with a Marie Sklodowska-Curie scholarship. Her professional and research interests include the cultural political economy of higher education, higher education regionalism, soft power and science diplomacy in Asia and Europe.



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