Why is it important that universities and businesses collaborate?

Image by Trey Ratcliff

Image by Trey Ratcliff

Too often we start considering this question from one side or the other – emphasizing either the responsibility of the university to undertake such activity or the benefit to the business in doing this.

Businesses and universities working together is a two-way partnership.

The academic partner benefits in many ways, for example: enhanced impact of the research base and also enhanced education opportunities for students. The business partner similarly benefits in a number of ways, from accessing world-leading innovation and research to growing and developing internal capability.

Both parties lose out if they don’t collaborate. In January, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) summed up the potential for joint benefit with the title of their guide to business – university collaboration: Best of Both Worlds.

All UK universities work with established businesses in a myriad of ways: collaborative research and development; supporting innovation in SMEs; consultancy and advice; internships and placements for students; graduate employment and providing Continuing Professional Development.  Universities are also key economic players in the area of enterprise and in supporting company start-up, often playing the key role of an anchor institution or economic development partner for their localities and beyond.

Central government funding in the UK has supported these activities for a number of years – first starting in 1999 with HEROBaC and then, with renewed emphasis from 2001 onwards, under HEIF (the Higher Education Innovation Fund).  Encouraged by this national level support, many universities further embedded collaboration with industry into their core strategies and recognized real benefits from HEIF as an enabler to engaging with external partners.  Recently the wider benefit of HEIF on more traditional research activities in our universities has also become clear. The support from HEIF was well evidenced in the impact case studies submitted as part of REF2014.

HEIF funding is given to the universities, but the overall impact is felt across all collaborative partners and beneficiaries.

Last month, the formal call for responses to the Dowling Review closed. This was the latest in a line of reviews of this type, examining how UK government can support the development of more effective collaborations between businesses and university researchers. Before Dowling, we had the Witty review and previous to Witty, we had the Wilson review of business-university collaboration in 2012.  In his review of Universities and Growth, Witty recommended that the “Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) should be increased and its focus on supporting innovative SMEs sharpened.”

However, there is currently some uncertainty around the future of HEIF beyond 2016. It is clear that Higher Education funding will be reviewed as part of the expected post election Comprehensive Spending Review.  How will that uncertainty and the review affect the amount of work that Universities do with business, or more importantly the overall competitiveness of the UK’s innovation system?

It is vitally important that the Higher Education sector, the government and industry realises the benefit that HEIF funding has brought and the competitive position it gives UK HEIs, over their European Counterparts in particular, many of which view it with envy.  It is clear that HEIF is one of the most flexible and impactful funding streams in which the government has invested and the case for its instigation is as relevant now as it was back in the late 1990s, but just needs to be tuned to today’s continually evolving environment.

By traditional Government evaluation techniques it is recognised that for every £1 of HEIF funding granted, there is over £6 of economic impact. However, it is the flexibility of HEIF that really enables it to deliver. Each institution has been able to focus its allocation to maximise impact from small to large-scale engagements, giving them the often-criticised agility that industry demands from academia whilst also enabling them to continually innovate.

At Coventry University for example we have built on some initial previously HEIF funded engagement activity, which enabled our innovative business partnership with Unipart, a UK owned multi-national operating across the automotive, oil and gas, aerospace and rail sectors to become a reality. Through this collaboration, Coventry University and Unipart Manufacturing have created the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME). AME features the UK’s first ‘Faculty on the Factory Floor’. Set to be officially opened this June, it houses state-of-the-art robotic automation, forming, joining, analysis and simulation, metrology and product verification technology. This is a facility we are incredibly proud of, which brings teaching, research and live manufacturing onto one site – meaning an engineering undergraduate has never been quite so hands on.

All UA members have similar success stories of this nature. It is important that we share these developments, increase awareness of the impact of HEIF and, more importantly, the successes from our collaborations and how those contribute to the UK’s highly prized innovation ecosystem.

Further reading