Blue chip partnership

November 4, 1994

The University of Nottingham makes millions of pounds from industry Colin Campbell explains.

Recently it was announced that the University of Nottingham, with an annual income of Pounds 6.3 million, earns more from private industry and commerce than any other university in the United Kingdom. This is a pleasing finding for us, particularly as we study the implications of the White Paper Realising our Potential. The university's "success" with industry reflects both a very long tradition and a more recent energetic drive.

The very roots of the university may be traced to manufacturers in the city of Nottingham in the last quarter of the 19th century. They were concerned about the rising quality of technical education in mainland Europe, particularly in Germany, and the threat this posed to their prosperity. The emergence in the 1920s of the university's great benefactor, Jesse Boot, led to a long and fruitful relationship with the Boots Company plc. Industrialists have never been far from the university -- they have been involved as members of the governing body or as informal friends of the university. The distance that developed between some universities and their business communities has not occurred in Nottingham.

After major national policy changes in the early 1980s there was a clear need for universities to seek more varied sources of revenue. This quest has accelerated in the last three to four years. Led by my colleague Barrie Bycroft, pro vice chancellor for research, commerce and industry, there has been a consolidated drive across the university to enhance research excellence, both in fundamental work and in opportunities geared towards wealth creation.

The extent of the changes may be underlined by mentioning that new research grant and contract awards over a period of six years increased from less than Pounds 12 million to nearly Pounds 33 million announced in the last financial year. In the last research assessment exercise the university, which only gained its charter in 1948, had a total of 11 Grade 5 departments. This was exceeded only by Cambridge, Oxford, University College and Imperial. We nonetheless recognise that we have areas where we need to improve. Accordingly, we have been analysing our performance with the aim of building on our strengths and doing something about weaker areas.

It is our experience that good relationships are based on a proven ability to deliver. We have found that if we cannot give a research partner what it needs, when it needs it, and at an agreed cost, the relationship will sour. Accordingly, we try to be very candid about where we have strengths and we market them pro-actively. We try to avoid getting involved in relationships when we know (even if we do not announce it publicly) that we are not actually very strong. We constantly review our performance and we speak to those with whom we are involved. Recently I visited the Ford Motor Company, with whom the university has enjoyed a significant and long-standing research partnership built up over 20 years. They only continue the funding because of the value they place on the work done in our department of mechanical engineering. My colleagues, professorial and non-professorial alike, seem to have a highly developed capacity to discriminate carefully as to which work they should undertake and which work they should not. If in doubt about the wisdom of taking on work or the terms on which to take work, we have an informal arbitration process whereby guidance can be offered by senior members of staff.

A continuing concern is to maintain a portfolio of projects and programmes appropriate to a major research university. We keep an eye on the balance between research councils, charity, UK Government, European Union, commerce and industry work. We know from experience that fundamental work can take 20 years before it can feed into wealth creation. Sir Peter Mansfield's world famous research on magnetic resonance imaging was first patented in the early 1970s. The exciting work by my colleague, Don Grierson, in genetically manipulating tomatoes has been under development for 20 years. Now it is undergoing trials in the United States, but the lead time prior to commercial exploitation has been long.

We are also anxious not to chase funding for its own sake and maintain a dialogue with the researchers about the balance of our portfolio. The blue chip companies with whom we work include Amersham International, Ford Motor Company, Pfizer, BP Research, Glaxo Group Research, Pedigree Petfoods, Bayer UK, Nuclear Electric, Zeneca, Allied Breweries, Fisons, Marks & Spencer, Smithkline Beecham and Nestle. Yet we also try to work with companies in the local community to share our expertise in areas of more immediate application as well as in carrying out research for major nations and global companies. It is the balance of the work that is important.

At the moment the university's research committee, now headed by Stephen Brown, is carrying out a consultation exercise, seeking a revision to our research strategy. We take the White Paper Realising our Potential very seriously, and we expect the Technology Foresight exercises to lead to changes in the thinking of the research councils, the funding councils and others. The consultation being led by Professor Brown is aimed at positioning the university, alongside its sister research universities, where it can make the greatest contribution to research, training and wealth creation.

As an institution we are fortunate in being financially well-off. This allows us to invest in the infrastructure without which high quality research cannot thrive. Last year this investment exceeded Pounds 13 million on our two campuses in University Park and Sutton Bonington.

This financial muscle is indeed essential if some of the more ambitious research programmes are to be contemplated with confidence. While some excellent work in science as well as the humanities is dependent to a large extent merely on brain power, other work in science, engineering and medicine, may only be done if there is significant investment in laboratories, equipment and other facilities.

The White Paper is written in a constructive and positive tone and this is to be welcomed. For too much of the 1980s there was a tendency for industrialists and academics to complain about each other's performance. This seemed to me to be rather negative and occasionally "immature". I am convinced that both industry and the universities have made enormous strides in working together in the last decade.

I do not pretend things are perfect and we can do more to "realise our potential". But in this university (and I believe many others) our work with industry is generally successful and very harmonious. The fact that we continue to work, year after year, with some of the best companies in the country, shows that they want to continue to work with us as much as we do with them.

Sir Colin Campbell is vice chancellor of the University of Nottingham.

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