Studies investigating university-industry collaboration and the role of universities in fostering economic development have mainly adopted a local approach, looking at how these interactions bring benefits at the regional or national level (Ankrah & Tabbaa, 2015; Youtie & Shapira, 2008). In this paper we argue that, given the fairly recent globalization of the higher education system, the role of universities as promoters of innovation and economic development should be revisited by incorporating an international dimension.
In order to do so, we consider the case of a UK-China Innovation Programme, ideated and developed by a UK University with the aim of supporting the creation and development of collaborative innovation between UK SMEs and Chinese organisations. Funded by UK national and regional government, as well as Chinese provincial government, the programme supported a total of 60 UK SMEs in their collaborative approach to the Chinese market.
We carried out a longitudinal case study of the programme (2014-2018) through interviews to key people involved in the programme at the University, UK SMEs’ representatives, collection of primary data on the interaction between firms and the university by direct observation as well as primary data on the results of the programme. In light of the data analysis, we argue the need for a revisitation of the third mission of universities. Extending on the concept of universities as “knowledge hubs” (Youtie & Shapira, 2008), we explore the role of universities as actors that promote innovation and economic development by acting as intermediaries in the internationalisation process of firms through collaborative innovation. Additionally, analysing the type of knowledge exchange between university and industry occurring during the process, we suggest a possible reversal in the respective contributions brought into the collaboration: knowledge and technology by firms and access to market by the university.