Consultancy pays the bills

February 11, 2005

Stefaan Simons, a professor of chemical engineering at University College London, did three weeks' consultancy for a multinational consumer products company. Two years later, the firm provided sponsorship for a PhD student and there are plans for more.

His experience reflects the fact that consultancy is by far the most widespread knowledge-transfer activity carried out by UK universities, according to new figures.

UCL Consultants, a wholly owned company that handles consultancy for the institution, charges about £1,000 a day for a well-respected professor's time, or £700 for a lecturer. It takes a small share of the fee and facility costs are passed to the client. Professor Simons may undertake up to 40 days of consultancy work a year.

"The financial returns are variable," he explained. "Sometimes it's a reasonable addition to my salary. But I can't rely on it - it's a bonus when I get it. The main attraction is the possible spin-offs.

"Consultancy is a good way for industry to try out something but not invest a lot of money. If it works, they may invest more."

Figures released this week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England show a steady increase. In 2002-03, the sector recorded an income of £168 million from consultancy, a 38 per cent rise on the previous year.

But Hefce's annual Higher Education Business and Community Interaction survey notes that the true consultancy income figure was likely to be much higher.

Only two thirds of universities require academics to report consultancy activities. Private work done in their own time, such as appearing as expert witnesses for patents, would further boost the level of consultancy activity.

By contrast, exploitation of intellectual property through licensing and spin-offs brought in £25 million. Corporate training and renting out facilities and equipment brought in significantly more income at £130 million and £70 million respectively.

Adrian Day, who compiled the survey for Hefce, said that despite the importance of consultancy in terms of economic and financial benefits the media tended to focus on intellectual property and university spin-off companies.

"(Consultancy) doesn't depend on having a big quality research allocation," he said. "The average small or medium enterprise doesn't need cutting-edge research, just knowledge that's fit for the purpose."

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