Universities can play a pivotal role in helping UK firms to access burgeoning markets in China and Southeast Asia, a conference has heard.
Speaking at the annual Dearing Higher Education Conference at the University of Nottingham, Chris Rudd, the institution's pro vice-chancellor for business engagement and knowledge transfer, said that UK universities' alumni networks and international campuses had been crucial in reaching executives at some of China's "mega-corporations".
These contacts had led to several significant deals with multi-billion-dollar Chinese firms that had delivered millions of pounds of investment in research and development in the UK, Professor Rudd said.
Manufacturing firms in the East Midlands had also benefited from Nottingham's international contacts, with exports to China from the region doubling in the past four years, he added.
"When you think about the challenges of getting to (chief executives), it is very hard," he told delegates at the conference on 23 February, subtitled The Business Growth Benefits of Higher Education. "Because of our relationships, we can get pretty rapidly into some major companies in China."
R&D deals with China's state-owned aircraft manufacturer Avic; PetroChina, the country's largest oil and gas producer and distributor; and the real-estate firm Vantone had brought significant investment into the UK, Professor Rudd said, paving the way for further collaboration with British businesses.
Rod Coombs, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, said universities were also vital for attracting inward investment because they were the natural place for international firms to seek innovation.
"Fifteen years ago, I could have assembled 20 R&D directors for major firms which invest in the UK," he said. "There are only a few companies [like that] left now. We have to work with companies with R&D sovereignty outside the UK and establish collaborations."
Manchester's £2 million contract to train all BP engineers was a good example of how partnerships with industry could benefit the local economy, with visitors spending money in hotels, restaurants and airports, he added.
The conference also heard how partnerships between universities and industry could help to save manufacturing jobs in the UK.
Hamid Mughal, executive vice-president for manufacturing and engineering at Rolls-Royce, said his firm's collaboration with the academy had led to vastly improved manufacturing methods for producing aircraft components. These had allowed it to invest in a new factory in Sunderland, expected to open in 2014.
"If we can create a 50 per cent improvement in manufacturing methods, we do not have to go to Timbuktu and put a factory there to lower unit costs," Dr Mughal said. "We have created jobs in Sunderland, and it will probably be one of the best aerospace manufacturing plants in the world because it harnesses the scientific expertise of universities."
On the government's Catapult centres, which link industry and the academy, he added: "I've never come across such a powerful concept and it is exactly right for the UK."