As everybody in UK higher education knows, a significant amount of university enterprise income comes through the European Union. Usually this is discussed in terms of the big pots of direct research funding such as Horizon 2020 (previously the framework funds), but universities also benefit from EU Structural and Investment funding that supports their work, particularly around small business and enterprise engagement activities.
It also won’t come as a shock that the EU referendum result introduces a significant element of uncertainty regarding the ongoing viability and availability of such funding. In the first instance, there is the question of how long UK universities will remain eligible for EU funding programmes. Clarity from government on research funding is welcome, but we eagerly await news on other enterprise funding strands, such as the European Regional Development Fund or European Social Fund, which are an important part of the funding mix.
Universities have been encouraged to continue to make applications until the UK’s EU membership expires; we continue to do so, and to celebrate our successes.
But while this is happening we are looking closely at what is happening in the margins. Anecdotal evidence seems to be growing of UK universities being shunned by their counterparts on the continent, with whom joint bids are being proposed. Since the referendum, our desirability as a lead partner in bidding is under threat. For grants with a long lead time, sometimes up to 18 months, our international peers are understandably nervous about putting a UK university as the lead institution, given the risk of changing eligibility requirements forcing the university out of the mix.
Acting as lead partner gives a university some real teeth on the international research scene, particularly where the lead university has the academic strength and credibility in the research area. The expertise of UK universities has long been held in the highest esteem by those abroad, and one of the biggest current threats to enterprise activities is therefore the perceived loss of status associated with dropping down the pecking order.
The institutional risk associated with significant income coming from one uncertain source, should be obvious, and this is why universities looking to grow their enterprise income need to start to think about diversification right now. To me, there are two questions to ask: how can we grow existing transnational partnerships and relationships into new research and enterprise collaborations that drive joint bids and deliver new activity; and how can we work better locally to play a more active role in supporting growth at local and national levels, through community collaborations and outreach initiatives?
Regarding the former, it’s true that internationalisation is a common agenda within UK universities, but to date it has been by and large seen in terms of transnational education (TNE) and international student recruitment. Existing TNE and study abroad schemes present a ready number of potential research, enterprise and innovation partners who are already familiar with the university and with whom good relationships already exist. This is a good place to start. Next is to think about what these partnerships can offer from an enterprise perspective.
Furthermore, outside of the EU there are many countries with which the UK shares common historic, cultural and linguistic ties, which could be leveraged to good effect to provide mutual benefits. My institution, London South Bank University, is leading a small delegation this autumn to Ryerson University in Toronto – a city with striking parallels to London – as part of a move to develop an international business launchpad programme for small businesses and student/graduate start-ups in the university’s enterprise community. In such circumstances, reigniting links with Commonwealth countries feels opportune, and universities that carefully cultivate relationships early may stand to reap the benefits down the line.
But the task of the strategists is not to get too distracted by the global picture, to the detriment of opportunities closer to home. Relationships with the Greater London Authority (itself a distributor of EU funding in London), or otherwise local borough councils, are worth nurturing with more intensity, as well as those with government agencies. New efforts to boost philanthropic donations from alumni and others should come into the mix too.
Rethinking enterprise by building a diverse income portfolio is one way of balancing the uncertainties of Brexit. But to achieve this quickly, and successfully, universities must think about upskilling the workforce to deliver new joint ways of working (for example across research and enterprise departments and the university’s international teams), and this work should absolutely start now.
Gupreet Jagpal is Director of Research, Enterprise and Innovation at London South Bank University.