Sir Andrew Witty was set a challenging task when asked to explore how universities can support growth. The UK has a world-leading but nonetheless complex eco-system supporting innovation and growth. Despite this, Witty is largely successful in drawing a thread through this landscape to identify some genuine points of action.
1. It is clear that Universities are central to growth and equally that growth should be a core mission within universities.
As anchor institutions, Universities play an essential connecting role regionally, nationally and globally. As the report points out “they possess resources in terms of research and innovation capacity and expertise, both national and international connections, strong links with leading companies in their sectors and the capability to analyse and understand research from across the globe and the markets in which that research can be applied.” Central to the report is the need to realise this potential. In an increasingly competitive global and innovation-led economy none of us can afford to ignore the rich resource that such connections can provide.
2. It draws together strengths from across the UK in order to build comparative advantage
Calling for us to “embrace the country’s density of population and institutions and drive greater collaboration wherever the idea flows” the report draws a helpful picture of the UK’s research and innovation eco-system. Within this there are many players that have diverse strengths across discipline and approach. Indeed, the additional heat maps provided by University Alliance aimed to highlight the wider role universities can play in their regions beyond their research mission. Competition for funding often means that the extent of complementarity and cooperation between universities, research centres, and indeed business, is underplayed. Witty is right to focus on this issue and his proposal for Arrow Projects seems to draw lessons from previous initiatives such as the Catapults. Collaborative projects such as this must draw together our best talent wherever it is located and be adept at utilising the different strengths of all partners.
3. It places the spotlight back on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)
As Witty recognises there is already much expertise within our universities of working with SMEs. This relationship is critical to understand if we are to fully realise our growth potential in all parts of the UK. Witty highlights the contribution of fast growing, innovation-based SMEs within the future growth of the UK economy. This role is especially significant in regions that have fewer large multinationals. Increased support from HEIF, the LEPs and other resources that Witty identifies will enable universities to build strong and sustainable partnerships with SMEs. Over time, SMEs will be able to grow their engagement in order to benefit from the full range of services and support on offer.
4. It calls for the Higher Education Investment Fund (HEIF) to be strengthened.
For every £1 of HEIF invested, it returns £6 in gross additional knowledge exchange income representing clear value for money. The fund has helped universities to invest in their innovation capacity across a broad range of areas including: developing their local innovation infrastructure; providing expertise to support local economic development; supporting student enterprise; and actively supporting the creation and strategic development of LEPs. This is a proven channel for investment that continues to have significant impact towards overcoming many of the challenges we face following recession.
5. It places greater emphasis on the co-ordinating role of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and UK Trade & Investment (UKTI)
The range of organisations and initiatives running across the research and innovation landscape that the report identifies demonstrates further the need for high-level leadership and coordination. We agree that the TSB and UKTI are ideally placed to do this. As the UK’s national innovation agency, the TSB plays a vital role within this space; they should be supported and resourced as such. Taking on a coordinating role for the LEPs as Witty suggests could be especially valuable. Equally, as the report highlights, the UKTI will be critically important. The UKTI has increased its focus on the role of universities over recent years but dedicated support is indeed needed in order to further encourage and establish this activity.
University Alliance looks forward to working with Government and others to act on Witty’s conclusions in the coming months.