Covid hit to university-industry collaboration in UK ‘limited’

NCUB report finds patent registrations and spinouts trended positive in 2020-21, but knowledge exchange income slumped

December 1, 2022
Source: iStock

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a fall in collaborations between UK universities and businesses, a new report finds.

But researchers found that the decrease in activity was smaller than expected given the significant disruption it caused.

The report from the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), which tracks trends across 25 metrics of collaboration, found that around 77,000 interactions were recorded between universities and businesses and 2020-21 – 2 per cent fewer than in 2019-20.

But the NCUB said this was a smaller drop than was anticipated, reflecting the effort that universities put into supporting and maintaining their business links.

“The resilience in university-business collaboration during a period of continued economic and political volatility is striking,” said Joe Marshall, chief executive of NCUB.

“The limited decline in interactions is illustrative of their value to the organisations involved and the role collaboration plays in generating the ideas and skills they need to succeed.”

The government’s recommitment to increasing public investment in research and development proves the importance of the research sector in aiding innovation-led growth, he added.

The report, funded by Research England, pulls together data from a range of sources and is viewed as an important barometer of the performance of business-university collaborations.

It found that specific commercialisation activities, such as patent registrations, increased by 11 per cent in 2020-21.

And the number of academic spinouts that survived at least three years rose by 4.5 per cent year-on-year.

By contrast, university income from industry through knowledge exchange fell by 10 per cent over this time, which the NCUB said was largely driven by pandemic-related disruption.

Dame Jessica Corner, executive chair of Research England, said: “Universities in partnership with business have a critical role to play to deliver the government’s growth agenda.

“Looking forward, the report points towards the powerful role of collaboration to address productivity challenges – fundamental in helping to drive better living standards and higher-paid jobs, and pivoting the UK further towards innovation-led growth.”

Researchers found that interactions with large businesses fell by 0.6 per cent, and by 2.5 per cent with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The report warned that there is uncertainty when interactions with SMEs will reach pre-pandemic levels – as a result of lower private sector activity, high inflation and the loss of key European funding streams.

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