‘Action needed’ to shore up university-business ties hit by Covid

Figures from survey of universities and firms suggest big downturn in activity in some sectors  

December 14, 2020
Broken chain
Source: iStock

The knock-on effects of the pandemic “threaten the viability” of many university-business partnerships in the UK, and action should be taken to shore up networks that were established before Covid-19 hit, according to a policy expert on innovation.

Tomas Coates Ulrichsen, director of the Policy Evidence Unit for University Commercialisation and Innovation at the University of Cambridge, says in a new report that efforts were being made across the board to “preserve” projects and industry-university links.

But he adds that the pressures caused by the pandemic and its associated lockdowns raised the “inevitable question” of how long such efforts could continue.

His remarks, in the National Centre for Universities and Business’ annual State of the Relationship report on links between higher education and industry, are accompanied by figures from a survey of universities and business on the impact of Covid.

They suggest universities have seen “quite dramatic declines” in activities with sectors such as aerospace, automotive manufacturing and the creative industries, although links with others like the pharmaceutical industry have fared much better.

Partnerships with small- and medium-sized businesses have also “been particularly badly affected”, with more than a fifth of institutions saying they had seen drop-offs in activity of at least 20 per cent.

“The reduction in activity was not necessarily due to projects being cancelled (yet). Rather, project deadlines were being extended, planned projects delayed, and the scale and scope of projects reduced or refocused on shorter term partner priorities,” says Mr Ulrichsen.

“Some partners were also looking to renegotiate financial and other contractual terms. Overall the picture is one of trying to preserve projects – and hence relationships – as much as possible. The inevitable question is for how long can this continue?”

He says that a parallel survey of firms showed they were cutting back on work with universities for reasons including financing, lack of staff and problems accessing facilities.

“Perhaps more worrying longer term were the 27 per cent of large R&D active firms looking to rationalise the number of universities they worked with. This rises to 55 per cent of those responding from the life sciences sector,” he adds.

He concludes that the effects of the pandemic “threaten the viability of many university-business partnerships, with intense financial and operational pressures from all sides”.

“As we look forward, it is important that we take steps to maintain the ability of universities, business, investors, public agencies and other organisations in the innovation system to partner to drive innovation.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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