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HEi-think: What it takes to make the university-business relationship work

The important and evolving relationship between universities, business and government is in good shape, but all parties must continue to work at it to sustain progress and achieve goals, argues Dr David Docherty, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.

 

A healthy relationship between business, universities and government is vital to the long-term prosperity and well-being of the UK. However, this does not mean that universities should be reduced to ‘doing what industry wants’, or caricaturing the higher education of many of our brightest young people as shuffling ‘oven ready’ graduates out in businesses.

Any partnership is only healthy if it shares goals, nurtures shared ambitions, and has mutual respect.  Measuring these more complex cultural and strategic ambitions is at the heart of the National Centre for University and Businesses’ State of the Relationship report.

The National Centre was established three years ago to support the quality and impact of business-university collaboration. With funding from the four higher education funding councils, the research councils, and 120 corporate and university members, it has established a national brokerage platform for innovation (www.konfer.online), and run change management programmes, such as The Fuse which explores ways to improve the partnerships between universities and the creative and digital sector.

Everything the National Centre does is evidence-based and when we were commissioned by the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE) to take the pulse of the collaboration in the UK, we developed two approaches – case studies to give us granular insight into the culture that drives successful partnerships with strong outcomes, and a broad systems-level set of metrics to help everyone involved track past success and forecast future issues.

SOR 2016 has 46 case studies. These include stories that range across sectors and regions and highlight breakthroughs in research and innovation, and graduate talent development. In this edition, the University of Portsmouth showcased the first policy forensic lab to be based on a campus; BT showcased iPatch, a tool to optimise time use among engineers using artificial intelligence and developed with the University of Essex; Capgemini explains how developing Degree Apprenticeships with Aston University will transform progression to higher education for the vocational education route, and among many solutions based on digital technologies, the University of East Anglia showcases how they developed a free mobile app with Deustche Telecom to source data for dementia research.

These stories show that up and down the country, and beyond, academics, administrators and business leaders are committed to sharing the burdens and challenges of working together and creating shared cultures.  But, great anecdotes are not enough. In partnership with funders and members, we are looking for hard evidence of change. SOR 16 highlighted some key numbers including:

•         Industry income for knowledge exchange in universities increased 6% to £896 million in 2014, growing faster than public and third sector income.

•         Only £300 million of this came from R&D budgets, showing academic knowledge is valued across all parts of businesses, including operations, marketing, procurement, and HR.

•         Foreign investment in universities and income from licensing grew faster than other sources, demonstrating the increasing value of UK collaboration.

•         Universities recorded over 80,000 deals with small and medium sized companies and just under 24,000 deals with larger corporations, but the latter are 10 times as big as deals with smaller companies.

•         Academics in the UK only have half a day a week to dedicate to knowledge exchange, and in this time they engage in no less than 30 different types of activities with non-academics, from sitting on advisory boards to setting up facilities, on external secondments, school projects or simply giving informal advice to the public. They are as likely to engage in community based sports activities as they are to engage in spinning out a company.

As we continue to track the strategic and cultural health of the triple helix of business, university and government, we will look to deepen our understanding of how success is achieved. For now, we can say that the partnership is rude health, even if it needs to continue to workout.

olesphoto / 123RF
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