A firm offer that's a stone's throw away

February 19, 1999

For universities searching for business opportunities, the next offer could be just around the corner, writes Alison Goddard

To forge links with small firms, universities should target businesses in the local area, according to a report on links between universities and industry in the United Kingdom.

"Higher education institutes are recognising the need for closer involvement with their local and regional economies and in particular the small and medium-sized enterprises sector," concludes the recent report, Industry-Academic Links in the UK, produced by Manchester University's policy research in engineering, science and technology department.

"The big problem is to set up collaborations with existing small and medium-sized enterprises," says Luke Georghiou, one of the report's authors.

"Government policy at the moment concentrates on start-ups and spin-offs. We need policies to help the rest. And the evidence from other countries is that such schemes need to be delivered locally."

Professor Georghiou's survey of links between universities and industry in the UK found that small firms account for most of the local linkages with industry. Three-quarters of respondents reported that half their links with local firms were with those employing fewer than 50 people.

But there was some regional variation. In Scotland, small companies provide about 34 per cent of universities' industrial income, according to the survey. In England and Wales, it is about 28 per cent. However, the income from really small firms employing fewer than 50 people accounted for almost 10 per cent of the Welsh universities' industrial income, compared with 7 per cent and 4 per cent for England and Scotland respectively.

Within the English regions, universities in the Southeast have the best links with small firms, accounting for 33 per cent of research income. In the North, this figure is 28 per cent and in the Southwest, the East and West Midlands it is 23 per cent.

Professor Georghiou recommends that universities restructure to improve their links with small businesses. "Large companies have infrastructures that allow access to university knowledge," he says. "But if universities have something that is beneficial to small and medium-sized enterprises, it is difficult for SMEs to find it."

His solution is for universities to employ specialist staff to create an interface between themselves and small firms.

Universities could also profit from providing more continuing education and training to staff in small firms. The survey found that higher education colleges receive 92 per cent of their continuing education and training income from small businesses: universities obtain 50 per cent.

But Professor Georghiou warns that universities face stiff competition in this market. "Competition is not only with other universities. There can be extremely hard competition from the further education sector and from private-sector suppliers. And with the growth of distance learning, you cannot rely on your local market," he says.

In teaching, new technology has helped the competitive arena to move beyond regional boundaries."

Industry-Academic Links in the UK is published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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