Do universities and businesses have common goals?

Every year the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) publishes an assessment of the state of the relationship between universities and business.

It measures interaction, investment and impact – and scrutinises challenges on the horizon, and our preparedness to meet them. This year we celebrate the changemakers who are rising to meet these challenges.

Within NCUB membership of universities and business are individuals, teams, departments and organisations who recognise the value of knowledge exchange; of collaborative R&D; of co-working space; of degree co-creation; and of work-based learning. They look to the future and focus on opportunities rather than obstacles.

From building a knowledge economy and re-examining knowledge exchange, to better balancing regional skills provision and economic prosperity, to creating technical routes to and through a more sustainable higher education model.

Monitoring progress: the numbers

That value is evident in our Collaboration Progress Monitor which tracks annual changes and long-term trends.

The 2019 Monitor measures activity post the 2016 referendum and sees most interactions increase. In 2016/17 there were greater numbers of collaborations between universities and big businesses; higher value of interactions between universities and small businesses; an increase in Innovate UK grants; an increase in licenses and patents and growing stability in spin-out companies.

Against a 5-year average we see an encouraging picture of resilience and growth. Yet one continuing trend is concerning. Reduced business investment in R&D and a falling share of graduates employed in innovative sectors presents a challenge for Government ambitions to increase R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP.

However, an 8.2% increase in the share of foreign investment in university R&D, with a total of £1.46bn, is encouraging. The UK’s continued success in attracting foreign direct investment underlines the excellence of the UK’s research base. Coupled with structural comparative advantages this will be key to sustaining an innovative economy in a post-Brexit world.

An advanced knowledge economy

The UK’s ambitions to build an advanced knowledge economy are covered in the first two sections of the report. The UK currently invests significant funds into the innovation and realisation of R&D. Alice Frost from Research England explores the impact of the Industrial Strategy uplift and its increases to the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) and the Connecting Capability Fund. To support and nurture the realisation of ideas, the uplift also allowed for the creation of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, Strength in Places Fund and Future Leaders Fellowships.

But as we move towards a new international outlook, the innovation game is changing. We investigated the variations in scale of collaboration; from using one idea to leverage multi-million-pound investment, to the sustainability of R&D through spin-outs and start-ups; and how to challenge what we think of when we hear ‘knowledge exchange’.

The pilot process of a Knowledge Exchange Framework provides a timely challenge to preconceptions of the exchange of knowledge – that it is dry, complicated and the privilege of large businesses and research-intensive universities. But the case-studies within the report demonstrate that knowledge exchange can be creative and dynamic, and range in size, practice, aims and outcomes. From sport, to art, to history. Working with big aerospace businesses and independent art galleries. Tackling immersive tech, homelessness, and weight loss. Right across the UK, with big partners and with small.

Prioritising productivity. Or place? Or both?

The Government committed to boosting productivity by addressing regional differences, but do the two go hand in hand? Does a rising tide lift all boats? University-business collaboration can drive solutions to weak productivity growth. Richard Jones from the University of Sheffield highlighted the fourfold division of the UK regions in their share of public and private sector R&D. For example, Scotland experiences disproportionally high public spending on R&D compared to private – which is explored by Anton Muscatelli, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow.

The inequality of geography is also evident in skills. Productivity in the UK is tied to skills, and therefore to provision. HE cold-spots are echoed in maps of low public and private funding, for example: Wales and its border with England, and Yorkshire and the Humber. This report looks at those organisations and individuals solving either or both issues through collaboration.

Students today, graduates tomorrow

A university is a place of growth, as well as learning. To get ahead of the changing world of work, and the changing attitudes of learners, universities must understand the workplace both conceptually and by specific industries, places and organisations. This understanding is gained through collaborations which, we find, often focus on embedding attributes and experiences: from entrepreneurship, to work-based learning, to interdisciplinary approaches.

Increasingly, these collaborations revolve around technical education and technical skills, but not necessarily hand in hand. NCUB members recognise that universities are best placed to ensure graduates of all disciplines are entering the workforce with digital mindsets. This might be through the very environment in which they learn; high-tech buildings and AI learning tools offer glimpses into a future world.

But in many cases, technical expertise will fill the productivity gaps. And universities may be the supplier to business demands, but they rely on a pipeline of talent which is currently unstable, underfunded and unsuitable. By addressing the learners coming up to and through Level 3, ill-informed of the opportunities of HE or unwilling or unable to jump to Level 6, universities can supply those graduates as solutions to industry needs.

A call to arms

Our universities and businesses are united in common goals. The Government’s 2.4% R&D ambition requires concerted effort, and knowledge exchange will prove vital to its success. Our members have also united in their concerns around education and technical skills. The long tail of productivity will not be solved without a joined-up approach to upskilling and reskilling, across multiple sectors and through a diverse range of educational pathways.

Which is why this document is so important. Our work allows us to better understand the State of the Relationship between universities and businesses. It allows us to measure progress and note early warnings. We can observe trends and offer analysis on their impact. We can facilitate and build on partnerships to set and achieve goals.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we showcase the activities and efforts of those leading the charge and making the difference. And we can celebrate the impacts of collaboration, so that others might be inspired, and become changemakers themselves.

The report is also a call to arms. That we must do more, and do better, if we are to build a more productive and inclusive future for the UK. Building an innovative, productive and more inclusive UK is at the heart of the NCUB’s mission, and our members continue to lead by example.

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