Third Mission approaches and indicators: The way forward

Ciudad Politecnica de la Innovación, Edif 8E, Planta 4, Campus de la UPV, Valencia


As a concept the “third mission” of the university is barely a decade old. It has however become rapidly popular to refer to a further goal to add to the universities traditional teaching and research missions: the perceived need to engage with societal demands and link the university with its socio-economic context. Today governments develop third mission policies, allocate funding streams to its development (the so-called “third stream”), policy-makers and experts are developing indicator systems, and academics lively debate how to integrate the three missions within a coherent university strategy and whether the pursuit of one mission may be detrimental to the others. Yet, despite its success as a concept, it remains a contested one, mainly because of two reasons.

First, as with many popular terms, it may owe its popularity to its flexibility; in other words, it is a vague concept that can be adapted to suit varied policy agendas. One can think of the third mission as merely an additional funding stream, as a concept to cover entrepreneurial and commercial activities, or as a way to refer to the need to make universities more responsive to societal demands.

Second, the concept competes with other ways of addressing and understanding the relationships between university and society. “Extension” activities have been, for instance, a central element of the university agenda in many countries for many decades. Perhaps more importantly, it has been argued that the connection of the university with society should not be understood as a separate mission:

« The central role of universities has long been to train students and to prepare them (directly or not) to the professional activities they will later deploy. Should not we understand this as the central means through which universities connect with society? » (Philippe Laredo, Towards a third mission for Universities, UNESCO workshop, 2007)

This is a debate that has important analytical as well as policy consequences. It is the objective of this workshop to explore the implications of these different approaches.

Objetives and Structure

The workshop will start by contrasting two different approaches to the understanding of the third mission. In 2002 a SPRU team led by Jordi Molas-Gallart developed a classification of third mission activities as a framework to underpin the development of an indicator system. In 2007, Philippe Laredo in a paper for the OECD suggested that, instead of referring to the Third Mission, it was better to conceptualise the university in terms of three central functions: “mass tertiary education”, “professional specialized higher education and research”, and “academic training and research”. These different functions call for different ways of interacting with society, and are pursued by universities in different mixes. The first part of the workshop will present these contrasting approaches: one that sees the Third Mission as defined by a set of differentiated activities, and one that sees the functions of universities as the proper entry point to understand how universities contribute to society.

The second part of the workshop will analyze current developments in Third Mission indicator development and policy implementation. How are government agencies, universities and policy groups undertaking, in practice, the development of tools to support university-society interaction? What indicators are they developing and using? To what conceptual framework are they implicitly and explicitly linked? Are there relevant differences among the date need of policy makers and those of academics working in these fields?

Finally, a roundtable will explore the implications of using different conceptual approaches to understand the relationship between university and society. We will discuss how different indicator development and policy design strategies may stem from different conceptual approaches: To what extent can the existing implementation of “third mission” policies be affected by the conceptual discussion that constitutes the core of this workshop.

This Workshop is organized under the frame of the R&D Project “La Tercera Misión de la Universidad: Nuevos Enfoques Analíticos” financed by the Spanish National R&D Plan (Project ref.: SEJ2005-05923/EDUC).