Data pinpoint Brexit threat to university-business links

Research shows which UK institutions interact heavily with EU companies

March 3, 2017
Source: iStock

University-industry research at some of the UK’s leading universities could be severely harmed if Brexit damages existing partnerships with European companies, new data show.

A paper from the UCL Institute of Education’s Centre for Global Higher Education, drawing on data for 47 of the UK’s biggest universities, reveals that 43 per cent of publications produced in partnership with foreign firms included at least one business based in the European Union.

This amounts to 1.5 per cent of the institutions’ total research output between 2009 and 2015, write Robert Tijssen, Wout Lamers and Alfredo Yegros of Leiden University.

“With this level of dependency on European industry for industrial relevant research, Brexit may have significant implications,” the paper says.

The data show that some universities may be particularly vulnerable to sudden changes in industrial relationships, with the 47 institutions reporting that EU companies were represented in between 26 and 55 per cent of their publications based on collaborations with overseas companies.

The research says that the three large, London-based institutions that published more than 1,000 papers in partnership with foreign businesses between 2009 and 2015 – King’s College London, Imperial College London and University College London – appear “especially vulnerable” to “sudden changes in UK international relationships” that could significantly affect their university-industry research profile. Around four in 10 of these institutions’ industry-linked papers involved EU-based firms.

The paper also analyses the role of “crossover” researchers who have been affiliated both to a UK university and a company in recent years. The University of Glasgow (56 per cent) and the University of St Andrews (50 per cent) have the largest shares of crossover researchers whose links are with EU-based companies, suggesting that they might be the most at threat if Brexit damages university-industry researcher mobility. The London School of Economics (42 per cent) and the University of Edinburgh (41 per cent) may also be concerned.

Given that UK universities are “pretty tied up” with European industry, Brexit is likely to be “detrimental for the research performance and the research portfolio” for certain institutions, said Professor Tijssen, professor of science and innovation studies at Leiden. Brexit might be an opportunity for some, but “only those which have acknowledged global strengths”.

“They will keep continuing no matter what because they have something to offer, but there are also universities out there with research lives that are probably not that competitive,” he said. “Second-tier universities [are] probably the ones that will suffer most – they’re simply not globally leading and therefore less attractive to global and European industry.”

Professor Tijssen added that Brexit could force institutions to “renegotiate all these links with industry on an individual basis”, which would be “difficult, time-consuming and inefficient”.

The research underlines the concerns of academics that Brexit will threaten industry links, following indications that major companies with strong ties to universities are reconsidering their presence in the UK.

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