Local focus for university-business links in UK ‘too narrow’

Major survey of almost 4,000 firms finds work with institutions at national and international level is a large slice of collaboration activity

三月 24, 2022
London, Heathrow, United Kingdom - October 3, 2016 American Airlines plane approaching to London Heathrow airport, low above housing estate.
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A focus on local interaction between universities and businesses in the UK is “too narrow” because a large proportion of collaborations between the sectors happen at national or even international levels, a major survey of companies has found.

The survey of almost 4,000 businesses – the largest of its type undertaken in the UK – found that only in strictly community-based activities such as public lectures or work with schools was there a relatively high focus on working with nearby universities.

In other main areas for business-university interaction, such as commercialisation activity, “problem-solving” work like joint research and even “people-based” collaboration such as employee training, partnerships with universities further afield were often just as prevalent.

The study, by the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge and National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), points out that it has been “frequently argued that regional innovation systems are strengthened by interaction with local actors such as universities as knowledge exchange, and spillovers, are influenced by geographic proximity”.

But it says findings from the survey made clear “that a stress on local connectivity alone is too narrow. Knowledge exchange interactions operate over multiple regional, national and international geographies.”

For instance, overseas universities were involved in about one-third of commercial licensing arrangements with firms and in more than one-fifth of “people-based” and “problem-solving” collaborations.

Meanwhile, when the survey asked about constraints that businesses found in terms of working with universities, fewer than one in 10 firms cited the absence of a local university as an important factor.

The report  The Changing State of Business-University Interactions in the UK 2005-2021 – also found that collaboration between the sectors was very broad in terms of academic discipline and reached far wider than just technological innovation.

For instance, the percentage of companies listing social sciences or the arts and humanities as important was still more than 10 per cent for most firms, although there was a propensity for the largest companies to appear to rely on more physical science disciplines.

And while “technology-based innovation-related factors” were a reason to collaborate with universities for 60 per cent of firms, help in areas such as business operations or organisational strategy accounted for more than half of the factors that businesses gave for interacting.

The report says that, as a result, “focusing simply on interactions that generate direct innovation outcomes” missed the “wider role that universities play in meeting the needs of business”.

And it also adds that only concentrating on STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] collaborations could “lead to an underappreciation of the role of social sciences, and arts and humanities, in shaping business practices”.

More generally, the report finds that collaboration between the sectors had improved in many ways over the 16-year period but that key barriers remained, such as firms having enough time and people available to work with universities, and the required information about how to set up partnerships.

Data on changes during the pandemic also found that more than a third of companies reported that Covid-19 had hit their collaborations, with the biggest impacts being on new partnerships and delays to existing projects.

Larger companies were also more likely “to have rationalised and refocused their interactions” with universities during the pandemic, “with a potentially adverse effect on the overall extent of their interaction activity and its geographical pattern”.

Joe Marshall, chief executive of NCUB, said that overall the results of the research made clear that barriers to collaboration “still exist”.

“This is holding back greater collaboration and is costing UK innovation. Now is the time for universities, businesses and policymakers to act on the findings to ultimately strengthen the ties with the private sector that are so central to our economy and society,” he said.




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Reader's comments (2)

Interesting article and good to spark a debate. From our work at The Knowledge Partnership, business links between universities and businesses in the UK vary enormously by type of university, location of university, subject area and by individuals. It is difficult to summarise in one survey and to conclude that "local connectivity alone is too narrow" is a generalisation that might not apply to the works of the universities with local NHS, for example, or with a university such as Edge Hill, for example. There are many excellent examples of universities having an impact on their local community and making a difference and examples of work nationally and internationally. The difficulty is often finding those examples as it is often based on individuals relationships rather than formal links. Perhaps, to add to the survey with case studies would help demonstrate more clearly what the implications of this study findings are.
The full report contains information consistent with TKPReserach view of local interactions. The conclusion quoted in the article is referring to over emphasising local interactions not saying that they aren't important or denying that some universities may specialise in them. The report makes a point of highlighting the diversity of universities involved in interactions with business which is a strength of the system.