Researchers have pointed out that firms that employ university graduates are more likely to collaborate with universities on R&D and innovation, supporting the development by firms of innovations such as new products and service offerings, organisational structures and marketing techniques. In a recently available article, David Fernández Guerrero (PhD candidate, Aalborg University) goes one step further, suggesting that the association between graduate employment and university-industry collaboration is stronger among firms in rural regions, compared to firms in other types of regions.
Scholars and policymakers have looked for drivers of university-industry collaboration on innovation. A sizeable literature has come out, as a result, pointing at factors such as company size (Laursen and Salter, 2004), the propensity of a firm’s sector to draw on scientific research and invest in R&D (Segarra-Blasco and Arauzo-Carod, 2008), or a firm’s propensity to engage in open innovation strategies (Hewitt-Dundas et al., 2019).
Firms have also been observed to be more likely to collaborate with universities if they employ university graduates from any university (Laursen et al., 2011); and university graduates that obtained their degree at the collaborating university (Drejer and Østergaard, 2017). In the article Industry–university collaboration in rural and metropolitan regions: What is the role of graduate employment and external non-university knowledge? (in press as part of the Journal of Rural Studies’ special issue, Innovation in peripheries and borderlands) I suggest that in Denmark the association between employing university graduates and collaborating with universities is particularly strong among firms in rural regions.
The research analyses are based on a combination of two databases managed by Statistics Denmark, the Danish implementation of the Community Innovation Survey, and the register-based Integrated Database for Labour Market Research. I have run regression analyses on the association between a firm’s employment of university graduates and its propensity to collaborate with universities in Denmark, in different types of regions in Denmark. The analyses showed that firms in rural regions that employ university graduates are more likely to collaborate with universities, compared to similar firms in metropolitan regions; as well as similar firms in intermediate regions—these are regions with at least one urban agglomeration, and as can be seen in figure 1, they count with one main university campus. Firms in rural regions tend to operate in locations with few to none urban agglomerations (Eder, 2019), and university presence is limited to, at most, branch campuses (Charles, 2016).
Why would the association between employing university graduates and collaborating with universities be stronger among firms in rural regions, compared to firms in other types of regions? Firms in metropolitan regions, and intermediate regions, are typically at a short distance from one or more universities (Tödtling and Trippl, 2005); and geographical proximity is positively associated with university-industry collaboration (D’Este et al., 2013). Compared to these types of regions, geographical proximity is less likely to facilitate that firms in rural regions collaborate with universities because firms are far away from such institutions. However, graduate employees can provide firms in rural regions with an understanding of universities and university research sufficient for university-industry collaboration to happen; compensating for the lack of geographical proximity with universities.
Interestingly, it is only among firms in rural regions beyond commuting distance of the Copenhagen metropolitan region, that there is a stronger association between graduate employment and the likelihood that firms collaborate with universities. Firms in rural regions within commuting distance of the Copenhagen metropolitan region are not more likely to collaborate with universities than their counterparts beyond commuting distance of the Copenhagen metropolitan region, despite being at a shorter distance from universities. Again, geographical proximity to universities does not appear to beat the advantages associated with employing university graduates.
The present study offers thus exciting insights both to scholars interested in university-industry collaboration and to policymakers interested in promoting universities’ links with firms in rural regions. To the academic community, the present study suggests that a factor positively associated with university-industry collaboration—the employment by firms of university graduates—is more strongly associated with university-industry collaboration in rural regions, than in other types of regions. To policymakers, the present study suggests that firms in rural, relatively isolated locations can be attracted to university-industry collaboration on innovation, through policies promoting that firms in rural regions employ university graduates.
David Fernández Guerrero is a PhD candidate in Business and Management at Aalborg University, Denmark, and is an ESR fellow of the RUNIN project, which received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 722295.