Academics set to sell more expertise

August 24, 2001

Academics' commercial consultancy work is set to join teaching and research as a core university activity, vice-chancellors predicted this week.

The Universities UK good practice guide Optimising Consultancy predicts continuing dramatic increases in commercial consultancy activity in universities.

It says the boom is being encouraged by a government keen to develop universities' links with industry. It is also being made an economic necessity by the increasing squeeze on university funding and academic salaries.

The guide is designed to help universities "strengthen their already successful record in knowledge transfer" and to maximise profits and other benefits.

But it also warns against a number of "acute" risks - conflicts of interest, intellectual property disputes, the over-stretching of staff to the detriment of teaching and research, and tensions between the academic and commercial cultures.

The guide was produced jointly by UUK and the Association for University Research and Industry Links, with support from the funding councils and the Department of Trade and Industry.

It says that many of the organisations and individuals consulted about the guide believe that consultancy "should be recognised as a core activity alongside teaching and research" and that before long it will become a central activity.

The report says there is limited data on the volume and worth of consultancy to the sector but, at a typical university, a staff of about 1,500 could bring in £2 million if they dedicate 1 per cent of their time to consultancy work, sold at the market rate of £500 a day.

A Confederation of British Industry survey found that 14 out of 15 medium and large companies used academic consultants and that 50 per cent signed more than 50 consultancy contracts a year.

The guide says that universities need a centralised strategy for consultancy , "just as they do for teaching and learning research".

"At present, many institutions are trying to promote consultancy without an overall strategy, and often within a framework of institutional policies and procedures that were designed to meet the needs of a predominately teaching and research culture," it says.

It warns of a number of risks to institutions, including the risk that "public funds for teaching and research were being used inappropriately", and academics could face problems with becoming over-stretched, or the undervaluing of their time.

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