Business links 'must be more than supply and demand'

CIHE report urges HE to focus on strengths when partnering with industry, writes Hannah Fearn

October 2, 2008

Universities should "develop questioning minds" rather than operate simply as suppliers for business, according to a report from the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE).

Influence through Collaboration argues that universities should not be forced to respond to industry's demands as if stuck in a supplier-customer relationship. It says employers must appreciate and use universities for their strengths.

"Higher education will benefit most from focusing on what it is good at," said Richard Brown, chief executive of the CIHE.

"We question the validity of a supplier-customer type of contractual model of employer-higher education engagement. Employers and higher education providers need to develop the trust and understanding that comes from building relationships," he said.

The Government is pushing universities to become more business facing. It wants to encourage businesses to help design and to co-fund degree courses, and to improve the transfer of research knowledge and innovation into the commercial world.

But some vice-chancellors and academic staff say the relationship risks becoming too one-sided.

Helen Connor, associate director of advanced and vocational learning at the CIHE and co-author of the report, said that when working with higher education, business must be "aware of its constraints".

"Some training providers or further education colleges will often be better placed to meet many of business' needs, such as very tailored training solutions," she said.

The report urged businesses to be clearer about what they wanted from universities and to remember to "choose their academic partners carefully". It also said universities must make it easier for business to establish links by improving external marketing and internal communications, and by ensuring that academics are fully involved with industry and knowledge transfer.

Philip Graham, executive director of the Association for University Research into Industry Links, disagreed with the CIHE's conclusion that universities needed to do more to help business to access them.

"I don't believe for one moment that universities are hard (for business) to get into. Every university website has an area where you can go for business interaction. I think that's an easy excuse," Dr Graham said.

He said he was worried that negative sentiments could put businesses off working with universities. "I don't like the phrase 'choose your academic partners carefully'. You're not just going to partner up with someone who's unsuitable."

A spokesman for Universities UK said institutions could do more to increase their visibility to employers.

Hugh Tollyfield, special adviser to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on employer engagement, said the report offered good advice.

"It suggests that universities can benefit from taking a more strategic approach and joining up internally the various contacts they might have with an employer perhaps on research, teaching, the development of their workforce or the senior management team," he said.

The CIHE's report follows the creation of the Confederation of British Industry higher education task force last month, which aims to offer higher education a clear message about businesses' needs and how universities can help meet them.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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