Creating a range of collaborations for universities’ civic engagement

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Partnerships with multinational corporations, small businesses and local authorities provide examples of how to improve the socioeconomic status of communities

A vibrant culture of collaboration between higher education, business and government can have a transformative effect on local economies across the UK. These collaborations drive research and development, and help redress regional inequalities. But how can their potential be realised?

Joe Marshall, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), believes that initiatives such as the Strength in Places Fund, set up by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and University Enterprise Zones, are recognising the connection between universities’ research excellence and positive social outcomes, and placing higher education institutions at the heart of the local economies that they serve.

“What’s fascinating about Strength in Places is a commitment to say how our excellent research and innovation activity is being used as a catalyst for economic growth, driving productivity, addressing social inequality,” says Dr Marshall. “Universities are open for business. They are really open to collaboration and partnerships. What you want is more businesses taking up that opportunity.” That more businesses do take up those opportunities is a core focus of the NCUB.

In recent years, the NCUB has partnered with UKRI to create an online innovation brokerage platform, konfer, which hopes to create more connections between researchers, academics, and business. This, says Dr Marshall, holds information on funding, research activities and facilities and equipment in one place, making it easier for companies without dedicated R&D teams to scout talent for partnerships. Local economies are underpinned by small and medium-sized enterprises and it is crucial that universities are able to engage with them. “How do you encourage, but I think more importantly inspire, businesses of all shapes and sizes to think about doing research and innovation collaborations with universities?” says Dr Marshall. “What you are trying to do is making really compelling business cases as to why they should invest in this.”

Universities, similarly, must make a strategic case for partnering with business. Luke Georghiou is deputy president and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Manchester and professor of Science and Technology Policy and Management in the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research at the Alliance Manchester Business School. He, too, stresses the importance of working with companies of all sizes. “At one end of the scale we have our strategic partnerships with major corporates, but it is important that we keep working with the smaller firms,” he says. “Universities cannot work with all small firms: there are just too many. But if we could selectively partner with those who have this growth potential then that produces the best results for the economy.”

Professor Georghiou believes that universities are “anchor institutions” whose identity is inextricably linked to their location. That they deliver social impact locally is critical. The University of Manchester’s partnerships with business and government have already had brought profound benefits to the city. Manchester has the Royce Institute and BP’s International Centre for Advanced Materials, but it is most famous for graphene, with two graphene institutes – the newest built to industry scale – conducting cutting-edge research and ensuring that the economic benefits from graphene stay within the country and the city. “That was a good example of university/city cooperation,” says Professor Georghiou. “We developed the concept together, that we would need the kind of institute that East Asia or the US would have. We had the strategic drive. We were determined that [graphene] wouldn’t be one of those stories of discovery in Britain and exploitation elsewhere in the world.”

Dr Marshall says that universities are becoming much better at supporting business, and sees Manchester’s success as evidence that the relationships between the university, local authorities, and the commercial and industrial base of the city are “joining the dots”. He adds that a similar model is developing in cities such as Glasgow, Birmingham and Cardiff, where business, government and higher education collaborate on an equal footing. “It is a really powerful partnership between all of those key actors,” says Dr Marshall. “They all have a key role to play, collectively, rather than one of them taking an absolute lead.” Cultivating these relationships takes time, but it might be incumbent on all stakeholders to invest that time and work together to maximise higher education’s social impact.

Luke Georghiou and Joe Marshall were participants in the UK Academic Salon 2019.

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