Networking error as academy cuts the bubbly when it is needed most

Business contacts must be cultivated in the age of austerity, academics argue. Hannah Fearn writes

September 23, 2010

The days of champagne and caviar for vice-chancellors wooing business contacts are over, with management increasingly restricted to more mundane fare such as tea and biscuits.

But a senior academic has warned that the "death of networking" could seriously undermine attempts to keep the academy solvent during the age of austerity.

Zahir Irani, dean of Brunel Business School, said British universities would be forced to obtain funding from a range of business partners in light of the forthcoming cuts to public spending.

Universities have been warned by Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet secretary, to prepare for a reduction in state funding of up to 35 per cent in the government's Comprehensive Spending Review, which will be unveiled on 20 October.

But despite the growing importance of good relations with business, Professor Irani told Times Higher Education that a fear of wasting money on "jollies" was preventing universities from engaging with the very people who could help shore up their finances.

He said that among academics and businesspeople, there was a "fear of being out of the office", with many going to great lengths to avoid "the perception of being on a jolly instead of working hard".

The professor argued that such attitudes were dangerous.

"This fear is now becoming a concern for those who service these networks within higher education and for more active participants from industry," he said. "Those universities ignoring the need for alternative income streams do so at their peril."

He added: "There seems to be a paradox between what is wanted by government and indeed universities - more engagement and income generation - and the practicalities of engagement within a recessionary climate."

Philip Graham, executive director of the Association for University Research and Industry Links, said it would be a "disaster" if universities significantly reduced their spending on networking or discouraged academics or members of management from getting out of the office to meet contacts.

"I think it is completely the wrong decision to reduce marketing and networking. You need to be out and about even more than in the past because there are an awful lot of people who are looking to take your business," he said.

"The first thing that people do when they are in straitened times is cut their marketing budget," he added, but this is "the worst thing you can possibly do".

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