Improving UK Competitiveness – University Business Collaboration

There is no doubt that collaboration and sharing of best practice between business and universities has the potential for increasing UK competiveness. A survey of over 18,000 academics in the UK, published by the National Centre for Universities and Business, “Changing State of Knowledge Exchange” shows that the majority of academic researchers are committed to helping the British economy grow by engaging with business. 

29/03/2016, latest thinking

The research shows that UK academics agree or strongly agree that higher education has a key role in UK competitiveness, 30% actively work with private companies and much of their academic research is user-inspired or applied. And similarly many businesses already see the benefits universities can bring to business. According to Universities UK, Neil Carberry in 2013-14 businesses of all sizes spent nearly £900 million on university research, consultancy, professional development and other services. This figure has been growing strongly for four successive years – in 2009-10 it was £710 million – and this represents a faster annual growth rate than overall business investment in R&D, which has itself been growing at over 4%.

Overcoming the Barriers to Collaboration

However there is much more to do to improve conditions and drive effective collaboration and engagement between university and business. While several schemes already exist to promote collaboration such as the Research Councils Impact Agenda, HEFCE funding from the Higher Education Innovation Fund and the Research Excellence Framework this alone is not enough to stimulate the required breadth of potential collaboration by sector and size of business or the longer term business/ university relationships that could make a real and lasting difference to the UK economy.

There are several areas that need to be addressed to expand and facilitate collaboration. Traditionally universities  and businesses are culturally very different organisations with very different aims and purposes which means the motivations to work with external partners or organisations will be many and varied. For academics many of the main motivations are concerned with developing research including gaining insight in the area of their research and keeping up to date with external organisations to gain access to knowledge to enhance their teaching.  And academic excellence is of course key to the success of the UK as a leading knowledge based economy and key to attracting high calibre students funding and foreign direct investment. However with the growing importance of league tables and the increase in personal financial investment in their studies required by many students there is growing pressure on universities to increase student employability and the quality and relevance of their teaching. There is much that universities can gain from working alongside business and understanding best practice in business and industry. But to make this happen we must simplify the range of schemes aimed at facilitating business industry research collaboration and improve the communication channels between business and universities. By improving access to university services across all disciplines we can take advantage of the full potential of opportunities to connect businesses with the excellent research being undertaken in the UK universities.

Dame Ann Dowling’s recent review of business university research collaboration stated that “there is an ongoing challenge to engage those companies that have never participated in collaborations but could profit from doing so” and recommended a campaign to raise awareness of the benefits that companies have derived from university collaboration.

According to the review there is a gap in the market to encourage academia-industry research partnerships to grow particularly in helping existing short term, project based collaborations to evolve into longer term partnerships focused on use-inspired research. An incentive framework for universities and businesses to promote the transfer of ideas and people would help to overcome the disparities in motivation to collaborate.

Networking and communication between universities and the business community is a critical element of an effective collaboration support system. When it comes to innovation there are already several established networking tools at national and regional levels that create links between universities, business and research organisations. However collaboration could be so much broader than innovation. The recent Higher Education Green Paper “Fulfilling Our Potential” makes proposals focusing on teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice all with the aim of reshaping the higher education landscape to focus on students and the benefits higher education can bring for widening participation and providing better return on investment for stakeholders These are all areas where two way collaboration between business and universities can enhance the UK economy, support communities and increase business growth.  We need to create the referral and brokerage tools and systems that provide a clear overview of available and appropriate collaboration opportunities and provide a way in to universities for business and a way for universities to identify appropriate business partnerships.  These tools need to be constantly evaluated and reviewed to make sure ever changing capabilities and resources are matched with constantly evolving social and economic needs and to ensure that each party gains maximum and sustained benefit from the collaboration opportunity.

However communication between industry and academia can be difficult and there are uncertainties about the benefits and the practicalities of making it work  on both sides.  This is in addition to the challenges relating to funding and time constraints. Smaller businesses in particular need to invest precious time to investigate opportunities for support and may not have the human or financial resources to explore or take a project forward. Similarly there are increasing pressures on academic staff which mean that lack of time can hinder the appetite for collaborative work.

 There is also disparity between universities and businesses and the targets and return on investment that would attract them to collaborate. While businesses may be commercially focused on the bottom line, academics require excellent research outputs. It’s one thing knowing that collaboration can be mutually beneficial and another finding out how to make more effective collaborations happen.

How can collaboration help?

While the UK economy is in remarkably good shape the recent research for the Exemplas Index highlights the fact that there are still some significant challenges to the sustained growth and productivity which the UK needs. One of the greatest challenges highlighted in the Index are continuing skills shortages. In the research 45% of businesses expect to experience difficulties in accessing the right skills at the right level required to help their businesses grow and many fear they will not be able to access the right staff with the right skills. According to the research it is sectors which contribute most to productivity such as manufacturing, engineering and science and technology which are most affected.  This is where universities and their graduates and their relationship with UK business come in. There is a growing realisation in individual businesses of the benefits which engaging with universities can bring to businesses whether for developing workforce skills through bespoke training and performance improvement programmes, development of degree courses, or in support of technological or process innovation.  There has also been an unprecedented growth in self- employment as a solution to unemployment and more and more people see running their own business as an attractive option. Through structured and long term collaboration we can stimulate a strongly entrepreneurial workforce which can significantly enhance social inclusion, stimulate growth and provide constant innovation in product and service development. This culture coupled with world class research capability is a powerful tool in maintaining the UK’s position as a world leader in scientific and technological development. But we must ensure the infrastructure for good quality sustainable collaborative partnerships is securely and consistently in place and increase access and visibility of university business collaboration opportunities through a programme of effective communication.