Academics should be encouraged to collaborate with industry through initiatives that carry similar weight to the research assessment exercise, recommends a report published this week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The recommendation was made in a survey of links between universities and industry, compiled at Manchester University's policy research in engineering, science and technology department (PREST). "We found the main barriers to individual academics working more with industry was the lack of incentives to do so," said Luke Georghiou of PREST. "People are motivated by the RAE; they are not similarly rewarded for collaborating with industry. That is why we made the recommendation."
Brian Fender, chief executive of the HEFCE, said: "Transferring knowledge between universities and the outside world should be treated as a third core activity, along with teaching and research. We must give links the recognition they deserve."
However Professor Fender stopped short of accepting that such links should be seen as being as important as teaching and research. "Higher education is such an important part of society that we would expect it to make an economic contribution. But in making it a core activity, then just as universities have to balance teaching and research, they should balance knowledge transfer," he said.
Universities with strong links to industry were cautious about the proposal.
Rodney Eastwood, director of planning at Imperial College, London, said: "I would be concerned if, by similar weight, it meant similar money.
"It could wrongly affect the direction of research. It would be unreasonable for HEFCE to use public money to subsidise industry."
Roger Needham, provice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge and head of the Microsoft laboratory at Cambridge, said: "I would say that this is an extremely bad idea.
"If industry can gain from research, then it should pay for it itself. And the value of what an academic does for industry is best assessed by the industry that he or she does it for."
HEFCE plans to repeat its survey of links between universities and industry every three years.