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Rinnakkaistallenteet Yhteiskuntatieteiden ja kauppatieteiden tiedekunta

2021

The Third Mission of universities: a

boundary object with interpretative flexibility

Montonen, Tero

Edward Elgar Publishing

Artikkelit tieteellisissä kokoomateoksissa In copyright 1.0

http://dx.doi.org/10.4337/9781800370135.00014

https://erepo.uef.fi/handle/123456789/26625

Downloaded from University of Eastern Finland's eRepository

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Reference: Montonen Tero, Eriksson Päivi and Peura Kirsi (2021) The Third Mission of universities: a boundary object with interpretative flexibility. In: P. Eriksson, U. Hytti, K.

Komulainen, T. Montonen, P. Siivonen (eds.) New Movements in Academic entrepreneurship, pp.

68–82. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar

The Third Mission of universities: a boundary object with interpretative flexibility

Introduction

This paper focuses on the Third Mission of universities as a metaphorical concept that bridges the social and cultural worlds of academic institutions and the public. In addition to teaching and research, universities around the globe have started to develop various activities to respond to the heightened need to create positive impacts on society. The activities most often connected to the Third Mission of universities include a variety of entrepreneurial activities, such as licensing, patenting and spin-off companies (Mariani et al., 2018; Schnurbus & Edvardsson, 2020). However, the Third Mission has also been suggested to include non-profit activities, such as entrepreneurship education (Nicotra et al., 2021). This paper understands universities’ Third Mission as the

relationship between universities and society, which manifests itself in the form of connections and interactions with various external stakeholders, such as private, public and third sector organisations and the general public.

An increasing number of researchers have shown interest in stakeholder relationships (e.g.,

Goodman et al., 2011) and stakeholder theory (e.g., Freeman, 2015; Parmar et al., 2010) in the past decades, and research on entrepreneurial universities and academic entrepreneurship is no exception (e.g., Benneworth & Jongbloed 2010; McAdam et al., 2012). Much of this research has explored knowledge transfer from universities to stakeholders in the form of research, teaching and other activities, such as innovation and commercialisation. At the same time, the growing attention to entrepreneurial ecosystems has been valuable in pinpointing a relational view that explicates how university–society relationships extend in both directions and endure despite differences in practices and disputes over goals (Missioner & Loufrani-Fedida, 2014; Spigel, 2017).

This is a draft chapter. The final version is available in New Movements in Academic Entrepreneurship edited by Päivi Eriksson, Ulla Hytti, Katri Komulainen, Tero Montonen and Päivi Siivonen, published in 2021, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd

https://doi.org/10.4337/9781800370135 The material cannot be used for any other purpose without further permission of the publisher, and is for private use only

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The relational approach encourages researchers to conceptualise the university—society

relationships – including academic entrepreneurship – as diverse social processes. Tuomi-Gröhn et al. (2003), for instance, argued that boundary crossing is relational because it aims to create

productive ways of engaging in dissimilar but intersecting practices. We join this discussion by focusing on the Third Mission of universities as a relational boundary object (Star 2010) or

boundary concept (Schnurbus & Edvardsson, 2020) that conditions university–society relationships.

Sataøen (2018) highlighted the significant role of universities’ Third Mission as a boundary object/concept that has advanced five distinct developments in Norwegian universities: becoming more entrepreneurial, involving local and regional actors, focusing on research with practical relevance, popularising science and building universities’ reputations. In our paper, we employ a pluralistic theoretical lens introduced by Nicolini et al. (2012) that combines a discussion on boundary objects, epistemic objects, cultural historical activity theory and objects as infrastructure to study top academic managers’ understandings of boundary-crossing activities in Finnish

universities. Nicolini et al. suggested that while these four theoretical approaches have been used distinctively by researchers for specific studies and are informed by different debates, they nevertheless share some of the same basic assumptions, allowing them to be used together.

In this paper we detail, via thematised accounts by top academic managers, the Third Mission of universities as a boundary object that has the interpretive flexibility to enhance university–society relationships. Furthermore, we analyse the Third Mission as an epistemic object that has the capacity to embody something new; as an object of activity that is partially shared, partially fragmented and partially disputed; and as infrastructure for boundary-crossing activities.

The pluralistic lens for studying boundary-crossing activities

Nicolini et al. (2012) suggested the use of multiple theoretical lenses –comprised of discussions on boundary objects, epistemic objects, cultural historical activity and infrastructure – to understand boundary crossing in collaborative work. Nicolini et al. used their pluralistic lens to study cross- disciplinary project work in biomedical engineering. Their findings highlighted how boundary objects motivated interactions between different parties, enhanced their collaborative work across boundaries and constituted key infrastructure for these activities. We apply their pluralistic

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theoretical lens to the study of top academic managers’ constructions of the collaborative relationship between universities and society.

According to Nicolini et al. (2012), the concept of boundary objects has been mostly discussed in science studies (e.g., Star, 2010; Star & Griesemer, 1989) to highlight the capacity of specific artifacts to support collaboration across groups with different scientific or professional expertise. In scientific research, boundary objects are defined by their capacity to bridge between social and cultural worlds (e.g., academia and society in our study). Because they have meaning across

different worlds, boundary objects create conditions for boundary-crossing work. Boundary objects are useful because thanks to their interpretive flexibility, they do not require intensive sharing of meanings between interacting and collaborating parties (Star, 2010).

Referring to Knorr Cetina (1997, 1999), Nicolini et al. (2012) further illustrated how the capacity of various objects – such as the Third Mission of universities in our study – to support interaction and collaboration derives from them being experienced and interpreted as epistemic things that ‘embody what one does not yet know’ (Rheinberger, 1997, p. 28). Because of the open-ended nature of these epistemic objects, they develop emotional holding power and generate intimate attachment, which has the capacity to create social bonds between interacting parties. In a nutshell, the complexity of epistemic objects requires the joining of forces, and the drive of different parties towards a shared epistemic object constitutes the grounds for mutual recognition and sense of belonging (Knorr Cetina, 1997).

The third element of the pluralistic lens developed by Nicolini et al. (2012) is activity theory. This theory emphasises that collective action is inherently object oriented, which is why it further motivates interaction and collaboration (Engeström, 1995; Miettinen & Virkkunen, 2005). In contrast to the discussion on boundary objects and epistemic objects, activity theory researchers emphasise the nature of boundary objects as emergent, fragmented and contradictory. Therefore, interactions between different parties is maintained around the pursuit of a partially shared, partially fragmented and partially disputed object. Finally, Nicolini et al. (2012) suggested that researchers pay attention to a fourth stream of research focused on objects that constitute the infrastructure for boundary-crossing activities (e.g., Orlikowski, 2007).

In our paper, we use the term boundary object as an umbrella term for artefacts and concepts that have the capacity to bridge between social and cultural worlds, such as universities and society or

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universities and industries. Boundary objects are something we act toward and with (Star, 2010, p.

603), and their materiality is not pre-fixed but rather derived from action (e.g., activities, discourses and narratives). We take as a starting point that also metaphorical representations – such as the Third Mission of universities – and narratives thereof can be powerful objects with material consequences (Sataøen (2018; Schnurbus & Edvardsson, 2020).

Data and methods

The power of narration in meaning making and worldview construction is widely recognised in the social sciences (Bruner, 1987), higher education (Trahar, 2009), scientific studies (Macnaghten et al., 2019) and entrepreneurship research (Garud et al., 2014; Hjorth & Steyaert, 2004). This body of literature highlights the performative and agential nature of narratives: they can enact things and phenomena, not just describe them. In our study, narrative inquiry is a holistic method that is used to frame both the generation and analysis of our empirical materials and the representation of our results.

Open-ended, conversational and narrative interviews were conducted with 37 top academic

managers (rectors, vice-rectors and deans) at Finnish universities from 2016 to 2018. For this paper, we analysed the interviews with the top academic managers who were responsible for societal relations in the 13 science universities that are governed by the Ministry of Education and Culture (the Finnish National Defence University governed by the Ministry of Defence was excluded from the analysis).

These interviews were subject to qualitative, narrative analysis from which key themes and

meanings were established. In this study, the analysis abductively integrated the emic meanings that the top academic managers assigned to the Third Mission of universities (managers’ accounts) and the etic meanings that the authors of this paper attached to the managers’ accounts through the theoretical framework of this study (Eriksson & Kovalainen, 2015; Laukkanen & Eriksson, 2013).

The first part of the analytical process focused on the inductive/emic analysis of the managers’

experiences and interpretations of the various roles of universities in society, which were coded and categorised. According to this categorisation, specific sections of the interviews were selected for further analysis.

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In the second part of the analytical process, the chosen sections of the interviews were interpreted and organised using the theoretically informed etic perspective of the authors. In other words, the data were coded and categorised again with the help of the theoretical framework of the study (i.e., pluralistic approach to boundary objects). In this phase, analytical memos were written in which the academic managers’ accounts were connected to the theoretical framework. Finally, the interview quotations used in the empirical part were chosen on the basis of their capacity to illustrate the pluralistic nature of the Third Mission as a complex epistemic object, a boundary object in everyday use and key infrastructure for university–stakeholder relationships.

The Third Mission of universities in Finland

In this section, we present an abductive analysis of the interpretative flexibility of the Third Mission of universities through the pluralistic theoretical lens (Nicolini et al., 2012). When interviewing the top academic managers, we asked about their personal experiences with and understandings of the Third Mission metaphor in the context of Finnish universities. The academic managers we

interviewed were familiar with the use of the Third Mission of universities in higher education discourse. To convey the different experiences and understandings they had developed in their work, the interviewed managers initiated discussion on many other concepts, such as university–

society relationships, stakeholder interaction, dialogue between universities and stakeholders, as well as the societal impact of universities. Additionally, collaboration (or the lack thereof) between Finnish universities was connected to the Third Mission metaphor both with positive and negative interpretations.

Table 1 illustrates the key meanings that the academic managers attached to the Third Mission of universities and our interpretation of the interconnections of these to the pluralistic theoretical lens.

In a nutshell, Table 1 provides a summary of the findings, which are outlined in more detail in this section.

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Table 1. The Third Mission of Finnish universities through the pluralistic theoretical lens.

Third Mission of universities

Key findings of the analysis Illustrative examples from the data Complex

epistemic object

Interpretative flexibility of the Third Mission as A. university-stakeholder

relations and interaction B. societal impact of

universities, provision of countering ideas

C. outcome of benchmarking and collaboration

A1. …interaction is, in my opinion, quite a key element

A2. …that we have good stakeholder contacts B1. That is, what is the impact of universities, the impact of research and education…

B2. …to bring new ideas to the field that are quite opposite

C1. …we looked at all the top universities. We never look at a lot of Finnish ones…

C2. …if all Finnish universities turn off the taps between them … there will be trouble Boundary

object in everyday use

Third Mission as partially shared, partially fragmented, and partially disputed Partially shared

D1. part of the everyday work in universities

D2. part of the everyday work in universities, requires some competence

D3. part of the everyday work in universities, but some universities outperform others

D1. in our basic tasks… very strongly involved in the development of business life

D2. After all, it is no more special than any other kind of work, all one needs is courage and interaction skills… diplomacy

D3. … systematization of [stakeholder]

dialogue, also outside the engineering sciences Partially fragmented

E1. close-knit networking of universities

E2. requires more openness between universities

E1. And that kind of culture of sharing, culture of working together, joint marketing, joint branding of Finland

E2. All in all I believe in the atmosphere of openness… and not the atmosphere of concealment

Partially disputed F. holistic and collective process vs. autonomous decision-making

G. activity that should be measured vs. should not be measured

F1. When it is a joint process, it is not the workings of the individual parts

F2. …there in the provinces they expect a decision from the capital

G1. We have no performance indicators for this societal activity

G2. …universities are on the defensive, how far one should go here

Infrastructure Third Mission as key infrastructure for university-stakeholder relationships H1. Open innovation spaces

and places

H2. Ecosystems as platforms for university-company collaboration

H3. Long-term strategic contracts

H1. …everyone is welcomed… to discuss issues related to entrepreneurship

H2. …that we get companies involved in a platform like this and there is knowledge, the know-how moves, ideas move

H3. …a 10-year, € 20 million framework agreement was signed with the company

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The Third Mission of universities as a complex epistemic object

As a complex epistemic object, the Third Mission embodies something that is not yet well-defined, which is why it is open to different – and even opposing – interpretations. In our data, the top academic managers mostly talked about how they understand what universities’ Third Mission is and how it should be implemented.

The following two examples illustrate how top academic managers experienced and interpreted the Third Mission of universities as interaction with various stakeholders, such as companies and public organisations. The first manager’s account illustrates how interaction between universities and external stakeholders is emphasised as the key issue of the Third Mission. The second manager similarly focused on stakeholder relationships between universities and other organisations and outlined a vision in which universities would benefit from these relationships by turning them into partnerships with more intensive collaboration.

…the bad situation is probably such that the university's activities are differentiated in such a way that the university remains an academically isolated actor. Its interaction withers so there is no living interaction with companies and the public sector. In a way we operate… without that interaction and the richness that the interaction brings. So yes, in my opinion the

interaction is the key element. (Manager 5)

… it probably means building such partnerships. And that would turn into a strength of the university that we would have good stakeholder connections. That we would have support from the public side, the third sector side, the corporate side. And also our most important customer is the Ministry of Education and Culture that we have good relations there.

(Manager 8)

In the first of the two following accounts, the manager described the Third Mission of universities as the social impact achieved through education and research. This interpretation is offered as a

‘better’ alternative to the understanding of the Third Mission as interaction. The justification for this better definition is that it tackles an emerging problem concerning the university–society

relationship, according to which Finnish universities already have enough impact. Some managers took their interpretation even further from the idea of interaction and argued that to fulfil the Third

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Mission idea and achieve social impact, universities should be bold enough to offer new insights that may even strongly counter the current needs of the stakeholders.

I think perhaps a better term…that has lately emerged, is impact. That is, what is the impact of universities, the impact of research and education. I think it’s a much better term for it than this interaction. I have described it ... that we have, with regard to the impact, this kind of situation, that there are parties in society that have an opinion that universities and research don’t offer any benefits. They do not create jobs, they do not bring about economic growth…

(Manager 1)

After all, the task of universities is to bring new ideas into society, which are quite the opposite of what the needs of today's business life are. In a way, this is where the societal impact and benefits come from. (Manager 13)

Managers also had drastically different understandings about how the Third Mission can be implemented by universities, for instance, concerning benchmarking and university collaboration that enhances the Third Mission idea. As an example of this, the first account outlined how some Finnish universities benchmark the Third Mission idea on an international scale only. The second account heavily problematised how the Third Mission metaphor has led to Finnish universities refusing to collaborate with each other at all in this context.

…we look at Oxford and Cambridge… it’s good to know what others are doing. Looking for the practices, but in a way the bar should be set according to these top universities. If really…

we were looking at all these top universities. We never look at a lot of Finnish universities…

(Manager 4)

… if all the Finnish universities turn off the taps, we just take care of this ourselves, then there will be trouble too… then we are in a situation that is no laughing matter. (Manager 7)

The Third Mission of universities as an object of activity in everyday use

In addition to being a complex and uncertain epistemic object open to drastically diverse

interpretations, the Third Mission was an object of activity in top academic managers’ everyday work. In this context, the meanings attached to the Third Mission were not pre-defined, fixed or

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standardised but rather partially shared, partially fragmented and practically disputed, as the following accounts by the top academic managers illustrate.

In the first of the three following accounts, the manager pointed out that universities engage in Third Mission activities by implementing their basic functions (i.e., education and research). In a similar way, the second manager outlined the Third Mission as part of the everyday work of Finnish universities but noted that it requires some competence in courage, interaction skills and diplomacy.

The third manager shared the understanding that the Third Mission activities –interpreted here as stakeholder dialogue – are commonly carried out in Finnish universities. However, the third manager also pointed out that some fields of science (e.g., engineering sciences) implement their Third Mission better than others and that something should be done to improve this imbalance.

…with these basic tasks, education and research, we are very much involved in the development of business life… (Manager 2)

After all, it is no more special than any other work, it just needs courage and interaction skills.

And a certain kind of diplomacy, because the university receives a lot of requests ... And then you have to be able to say diplomatically that this won’t work. (Manager 10)

… maybe it's the systematization of [stakeholder] dialogue, also outside the engineering sciences, so there we still have a lot of work to do in Finland. (Manager 11)

In the two following accounts, the managers shared an understanding that Finnish universities should work together when pursuing their Third Mission activities, but they differed in how realistic they considered this option to be. The manager in the first account referred to Finnish universities in the international context and suggested that strong collaboration could be achieved through close- knit networking. Referring to the past, the second manager considered collaboration between Finnish universities to be almost utopistic. However, the manager then offered openness instead of secrecy between universities as a tool for avoiding negative competition in the context of profiling (i.e., how each university tries to differentiate itself from the other Finnish universities).

And if you look at the world or look at Finland a little further away, then Finland is one small dot and in that sense, in my opinion, universities need to recognize that and act as a solid network that what is good for one is good for all of us. And that kind of culture of sharing, the

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culture of working together, joint marketing, joint branding of Finland… so I think it is terribly important (Manager 5)

Pretty utopian idea when you imagine what that history is between universities, but it’s not impossible. Still I believe that the atmosphere of openness is the thing through which profiling works best, and not the atmosphere of concealment. (Manager 1)

In addition to the partially shared and partially fragmented natures of the Third Mission of universities, it is also disputed, as the following accounts illustrate. While some managers

experienced the problem that universities may not produce enough social impact, the solutions they constructed for this problem contradicted each other. The first manager argued that instead of searching for somebody to blame for Finnish universities’ lack of societal impact, attention should be geared towards the whole process of how they produce impact. This change in direction would turn the Third Mission into collective action, which would make it useless to blame any single actor for the problem. However, the second manager pointed out Finnish universities’ potential to

produce social impact and blamed some parties outside the capital area for not acting as autonomous decision makers for universities’ impact in society.

… a rigid way of thinking is that we need to find someone to blame for why the research does not turn into useful results… is it the fault of researchers, universities, knowledge producers, or should we blame the companies, is it there on the exploitation side? When we should look at the whole process. After all, it is a joint process, it is not the operation of individual parts, but it should be a joint operation. And in this way, we can get rid of that search for culprits. (Manager 1)

The university field, if you look at it a little more broadly, it has tremendous potential. And in the end, when nothing more is needed than we should just start doing. As Finland still is, I am not saying as a country of the Eastern Bloc, but there are certain features still present that provinces are expecting decisions from the capital. (Manager 7)

The examples below show how the managers can have quite opposite experiences and

understandings of some practical aspects of the Third Mission activities. The first manager argued that it is difficult for universities to perform these activities because the Ministry of Culture and Education, which provides funding to Finnish universities, does not have any specific metrics for

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these activities. The second manager suggested that, if implemented, any such metrics could easily lead to a nightmare situation in universities due to the need to collect detailed information about their societal impact from every stakeholder.

… the Ministry of Education gives money to universities… and it is nowadays quite

performance-based and those performance indicators are related to teaching and research ...

We do not have any performance indicators for this societal impact… so it is really difficult for a university to focus on an area where there are no measurable results. (Manager 10)

… universities are a bit on the defensive, how far should one go with this thing… Yes, there is a risk, if you start to put too much emphasis on it… I think it's a worrying feature, you start to have those kinds of components in the funding model that try to measure things like these.

… I can only imagine in my nightmares that you have to run to various companies asking what kind of impact our activities in this area have and then you will get results as a big, medium, small impact and then you tick the box… (Manager 3)

The Third Mission of universities as infrastructure

While the Third Mission can be approached as a complex epistemic object and an object of activity in everyday use, it can also be seen as the key infrastructure to bridging universities and society.

The top academic managers in our study provided many examples of the specific infrastructure that their university is planning or has already put into place to facilitate university–stakeholder

relationships for the purpose of enhancing entrepreneurial activities and innovation. Most

commonly, universities have created specific spaces and places, such as physical or virtual business labs, in which faculty and students can meet with companies, entrepreneurs and alumni:

… Business Lab… We bring our former students and also business contacts and more to these facilities. Because we think it’s the kind of place where you can meet anyway… Friday Brunch, a place where everyone gets to visit and is welcomed. Entrepreneurship issues are discussed there… there is a meeting room that we have provided for companies, where you can come for free to spent an Out of Office Day… (Manager 6)

Other universities’ have gone beyond these kinds of open innovation spaces and places with more grandiose ideas. As the manager of a technical university explained in the following account, while

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they already had about 100 companies located near the university campus, they wanted more companies around them to build ecosystems that serve as platforms for ‘extremely intensive’

university–company collaboration.

…a technical university surrounded by about a hundred companies. Sounds pretty nice but it's just too little. I wish we would have an awful lot of companies here that we would work very closely together… Now if we can create ecosystems like this where we get those companies involved in this platform, and where that knowledge, that know-how moves, ideas move.

(Manager 7)

Some universities have achieved even more, as described in the following account. In this account, the manager’s work included building a campus ecosystem through which the university facilitates technology transfer from the university to companies and supports the establishment and growth of new businesses. A long-term strategic contract with a top company with considerable financial resources was made to enhance technological and entrepreneurial Third Mission activities.

… I am building this ecosystem here on our campus so that from here our research results are transferred to society as well as to existing businesses for utilization. We also support the creation of new entrepreneurship and the growth of these young companies. One good example that we have recently realized is that we signed a 10-year € 20 million framework agreement with [company name] to develop… technologies in cooperation, and it is just this kind of leading technology company with strong goals to develop products that do not yet exist, i.e. they really need new research results, new innovations… (Manager 5)

As can be seen from the top academic managers’ accounts, universities’ Third Mission as infrastructure mostly focused on stakeholder relationships with companies in the context of innovation, technology transfer and commercialisation of research, all of which are related to science-based academic entrepreneurship. From the infrastructure point of view, there seems to be a rather unified understanding of what the Third Mission of Finnish universities means and how it should be implemented. In our study, the discussion on universities’ Third Mission as infrastructure took place in the context of engineering sciences and business studies. However, discussion on the infrastructure for producing a wider social impact was mostly lacking in our data.

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Discussion and conclusion

This paper focused on the Third Mission of Finnish universities through a pluralistic theoretical lens (Nicolini et al., 2012). The analysis illustrated how the top academic managers experienced and interpreted the Third Mission metaphor in the context of Finnish universities and outlined the broad variety of meanings that managers attached to it. Boundary objects, such as the Third Mission, have been rarely studied in the context of higher education organisations (for an exception, see Sataøen, 2018). This paper produces new knowledge on the interpretative flexibility of the Third Mission as a boundary object, as a complex epistemic object, as an object of activity in everyday use and as key infrastructure.

For the top academic managers in our study, the Third Mission represented something that the Finnish universities have always engaged in through teaching and research, as indicated in the Universities Act. When outlining the tasks of the Finnish universities, the Universities Act (2009) does not use the term Third Mission, but instead refers to the roles and responsibilities of

universities in society:

The mission of the universities is to promote independent academic research as well as academic and artistic education, to provide research-based higher education and to educate students to serve their country and humanity at large. In carrying out their mission, the universities shall promote lifelong learning, interact with the surrounding society and promote the social impact of university research findings and artistic activities. (Section 2) Conceivably, the Universities Act (2009) leaves room for each university and manager to decide how they interpret the instruction to ‘interact with the surrounding society and promote the social impact of university research findings and artistic activities’ (Section 2) and how they go about implementing it. As seen in the analysis, some managers emphasised the term ‘interact’ as the key aspect of the university–society relationship, while others wanted to replace this term with a focus on ‘social impact’. The diversity and openness of the Third Mission of universities as an epistemic object is no surprise. When compared to the basic functions of universities (i.e., education and research), the public emphasis on the Third Mission – or the university–society relationship – is a new concept both in the Nordic higher education discourse (Schnurbus & Edvardsson, 2020). In Finland, the idea of universities serving society was explicitly introduced in the Universities Act of 2004, which was rephrased in 2009.

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The interpretations of the Third Mission of universities as an object of activity – which is partly shared, partly fragmented and partly disputed – is well illustrated in our findings. The understanding that the Third Mission becomes implemented via the everyday work of education and research is widely shared, but fragmentation becomes evident in how the mutual collaboration of universities is related to this. More generally, our analysis also raises the question of collaboration between

Finnish universities. Although the Third Mission of universities concerns the collaboration and interaction of universities with their societal environment, in our data this was closely connected to the relationships and collaboration between Finnish universities. The debated aspects of the Third Mission activities concerned their characteristics as holistic and collective processes and Finnish universities’ autonomous decision making. Another debated activity concerned whether some metrics should or should not be used for Third Mission activities.

In our findings, the experiences and interpretations of the top academic managers concerning the Third Mission as infrastructure seemed to be more often shared than fragmented or disputed. The shared understandings were most closely related to the economic impact of Finnish universities via innovation, commercialisation and technology transfer and less on the wider social impact of

Finnish universities. It seemed that the top academic managers widely understood the Third Mission infrastructure as entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems, as open innovation spaces and places around universities and as strategic partnerships between universities and companies. Thus, the meanings attached to boundary-crossing infrastructure were most closely related to university–

industry interactions and collaborations as well as science-based academic entrepreneurship.

Based on these findings, we conclude that as a boundary-crossing concept, the Third Mission of universities represents broad interpretative flexibility in the academic management of Finnish universities. However, when approached as infrastructure, managers’ understandings are more commonly shared, with little fragmentation or dispute between the meanings attached to the Third Mission. This resonates with the findings of the review by Schnurbus and Edvardsson (2020) in which much of the research “focused on commercial aspects of the Third Mission, but neglected social components and indirect, less visible activities such as popular-science publications or participation in policymaking”.

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