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Business needs UK universities to be smarter and faster

Outgoing Siemens CEO Juergen Maier sets out his vision for the future of university-business collaboration
This article is more than 4 years old

Juergen Maier is the former chief executive of Siemens plc

UK universities are amongst the best in the world, particularly in research and innovation. We must ensure that the UK doesn’t just become a global research hub but is attractive for businesses to want to commercialise and manufacture/produce services here.

In the past too much of UK research has been commercialised elsewhere. UK universities must form more and closer ties with businesses.

A priority for the incoming government is to consider how to put into practice its commitments on growing public and business investment in research and innovation. As former universities and science minister David Willetts argued in a recent paper it’s essential that the right drivers and incentives are in place to enable universities not just to produce cutting-edge research, but to work with business on spreading innovation throughout the whole of British society.

We need universities to thrive; to work with UK businesses as partners on research and innovation, so that Britain leads the way with emerging technologies and finding solutions to the world’s greatest challenges; to give us the best talent; and to be able to invest in smart campuses to continue attracting the very best students. Universities need to be educationalists, research collaborators and technology adopters.


If alumni are the “products” of their universities, more universities should think about after-care.  Universities all need to be looking at their business models and offering servicing, maintenance, customising and even super-charging the knowledge and skills with which they have equipped their students. Where businesses have embraced the need for employees to engage in life-long learning, upskilling and reskilling, all universities should be maximising the potential from remaining closely linked with their alumni throughout their working lives. The scope is there for growth in degree-based apprenticeships, work-based masters and PhD degrees and many more updating courses.

Universities need to recognise employers’ needs. Each graduate we take on requires, on average, three years additional training before they become fully productive members of our team. We need to shorten this by at least 50 per cent. There needs to be a closer dialogue.

If the UK is to lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution, universities need to move with business in preparing students to take advantage of the opportunities that digital technologies offer us. Digital graduates nowadays are familiar with working alongside artificial intelligence  and machine learning support systems, but these technologies need to be embedded into the more traditional engineering degrees. Graduates need to be already prepared to understand the principles of digital twins and to be engaged with the full potential of the Internet of Things. The half-life of technology skills is shrinking dramatically. We all need to be moving faster and smarter.

Research collaborators

Leading businesses can offer access to specific user and research groups to exchange ideas and experiences with regards to joint research projects. Siemens worldwide has relationships now with universities as Centres of Knowledge Interchange and as Principal Partner universities. These relationships offer a very high degree of collaboration and sharing between our research and development functions and the university-based researchers and academics. The company also works on individual projects with many more universities. This needs to become the model for the future.

To excel and be at the cutting edge, universities and businesses all need to move faster in deciding on the focus of joint research, the goals, methodology and process and be more flexible on sharing between partners and with others – both the knowledge and rewards. The Made Smarter Review, carried out in 2017, found that the positive impact of faster innovation and adoption of industrial digital technologies could be worth as much as £455 billion for UK manufacturing over the next decade.

The competitive advantages afforded by high volumes and low labour costs, which drove production capacity and jobs to emerging economies, can now be replaced by advantages like proximity to market and the opportunities to make products unique to each customer. Jobs and production can be returned to the UK. Some sectors are already well on their way, others have yet to start. Universities have a role to play in ensuring that graduates are able to assist their new employers to adopt and embrace digital smart technologies.

Technology adopters – tackling climate targets

Universities themselves have to be willing to show the way. Many have declared for the climate emergency and made commitments to reducing their carbon footprint. They now have to speed up their decision making processes (along with government departments and others); two to three years or more is common and is too long. Reducing carbon emissions can pay for itself through reduced operating costs from energy efficiencies and optimisation of energy through building management systems. Decentralised energy systems can be adopted and maintenance time, costs and disruption can be reduced.

These are win-win decisions. Quality of living is better and more attractive to students and staff, costs are reduced, carbon footprint targets are met and it becomes easier to attract collaboration projects with industry. Siemens is currently working with several universities but perhaps most notably Keele, where we are creating a Smart Energy Network Demonstrator. This is an open access, living laboratory, incorporating renewable energy (Photo Voltaic, wind and storage) at nine megawatts; a smart grid enabling energy management, producing over 4,000 fewer tons of CO2 and saving over £2million per annum costs. Students and start-up businesses can work with live data, monitor the energy demand in real time and experiment with energy technologies in a closed network to develop low-carbon solutions for the future.

The future lies in recognising that sustainability is only possible by becoming smarter, faster, even more collaborative, and by embracing emerging technologies in all aspects of being universities.

One response to “Business needs UK universities to be smarter and faster

  1. Whilst I agree with all of the above, I find that many large companies don’t want to engage with a University because they have a preconception that HE outside Oxford and Cambridge is all about “student placements” rather than actually building an R&D partnership. Our Renewables Innovation Centre has had to be based in Cambridge to overcome this, and we have far more buy-in from SMEs than from larger companies. We have established Industry Liaison panels to try to make graduates more productive more quickly (referring to the three years additional training before they become fully productive members of our team mentioned above) but we get very little buy-in from panel members. Is part of the problem that business doesn’t know what universities are capable of?

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