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Reinventing the third mission of higher education in Germany: Political frameworks and universities’ reactions

: Berghäuser, Hendrik; Hoelscher, Michael


Tertiary education and management : TEAM 26 (2020), Nr.1, S.57-76
ISSN: 1358-3883 (Print)
ISSN: 1573-1936 (Online)
Fraunhofer ISI ()
higher education; neo-institutionalism; Third Mission; mission statements; Germany

Higher education systems are changing due to trends of funding pressures, increasing social demands and growing numbers of students. Even though teaching and research are still considered as the pivotal functions of universities, other activities such as technology transfer, lifelong learning or social engagement have broadened the scope of their actions. These activities, labelled as third mission, are supposed to strengthen the impact of science in society and epitomize the changing role of universities. In Germany, the federal government and the states announced different programs aiming to foster these activities, e.g. the “Innovative Hochschule” or Real-world Laboratories. In this article, we first want to develop a definition framework of third mission. In two further steps we analyze how politics and policies in Germany have framed the concept in the last few years and how public universities are responding to this in their formal structure. We use approaches of neo-institutional theory according to which organizations such as universities create institutionalized structures and reflect institutional rules in order to maintain legitimacy. As an example of organizational formal structure we analyze mission statements of public universities. Using computer-based qualitative content analysis, we assess to what extent these universities take up the third mission. Our results show that most universities mention the third mission in their mission statements. However, the focus is mainly limited to economic impact and (technical) knowledge transfer. Much less emphasis is put on civic engagement or further education issues.