Firms fail to reap benefit of academic expertise

September 4, 2008

Businesses need to become more "university-facing" as well as universities becoming more business-facing, a new study suggests.

When it comes to making decisions about buying in knowledge, most businesses never even consider working with a university, researchers at the University of Hertfordshire have found.

Instead, many turn to expensive external consultancy firms because it does not occur to them that a university might be able to help.

The researchers, who were due to present their paper at the British Educational Research Association annual conference this week, conducted a series of interviews with businesses in Hertfordshire. Their results showed that rather than viewing universities as "knowledge organisations", most businesses saw universities purely as places that produce graduates.

One interviewee said: "We used a consultancy once and would be reluctant to do it again. I never thought of ringing the university for help."

Another told the researchers: "A university is there to educate people. It is not a business. Why use them for anything else?"

Consultancies were perceived as being "action" orientated, and universities were not always seen in the same light.

Some interviewees said they had attempted to contact a university in the past, but none had managed to make contact with appropriate staff.

"After being passed from pillar to post, they gave up," says the paper, Perceptions, Damned Misperceptions and Stereotypes: How Do Organisations Make Decisions about Universities?, which recommends that universities ensure they have a central point of contact for inquiries from businesses.

Many businesses were open to the idea of working with a university, and a number could see that there could be opportunities for collaboration. Most said they would opt to "go local" when it came to choosing a university to partner with, or would go global for specific expertise, and were not concerned about a university's position in league tables - although some thought league table position was important when it came to hiring graduates.

Co-author Eddie Blass, senior lecturer in professional education at Hertfordshire, said: "Somehow we need to raise the general corporate consciousness of what universities have to offer other than a graduate recruitment pool.

"Many of the organisations spoken to in the research were surprised at what we could do with them because they hadn't thought of universities in that way."

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