UK research attracted from foreign companies four times more investment to support university-business collaboration than it did from domestic firms, according to a new report.
In its fourth annual State of the Relationship report on industry collaborations with UK universities, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) found that foreign businesses poured £1.3 billion into such tie-ups, compared with £336 million from domestic sources in 2015. The investment was attracted by the “quality research” carried out in the nation’s higher education institutions, the report said.
At the launch of the report, David Docherty, chief executive of the NCUB, said that this figure was “crucial” as the country “thinks about what’s going to happen with Brexit and beyond”. Dr Docherty later told Times Higher Education that the UK’s “research excellence” was one of the principal reasons for the high level of foreign investment. However, that stream of financial support would be threatened if research quality were to “drift backwards”, which was a possibility if the government were to decide not to replace any funding lost in the UK’s exit from the European Union, he added.
There is no certainty about whether the UK will remain in the EU’s research programmes as an associate member once it leaves the union.
Attracting money for research and development from global companies such as Boeing, Airbus and Microsoft can be done only if “you’ve got globally excellent research”, Dr Docherty said.
“The most important thing of all is that our research is as good as, if not better than, everyone else’s research [post-Brexit],” he said. “The thing that businesses say to me fundamentally and all the time is that it’s the quality of academic research that makes the difference.
“If the research begins to drift backwards…that will have a major effect on the amount of money coming into UK universities and, therefore, [on] UK innovation.”
The report’s findings underline concerns in the sector about the threat to university-business collaboration posed by Brexit – with multinational firms including Airbus worried about the potential impact on their UK operations.
Paul Kahn, president of Airbus in the UK and another speaker at the report launch, said that there were “real concerns about international and particularly European collaboration” for universities in light of Brexit, even though withdrawing from the EU could also present new opportunities for the UK and could even encourage domestic industry investment into R&D.
“From a business perspective, it does bring an opportunity for business: to engage more with universities, to increase collaboration and, ultimately, for them to increase funding,” he said.
The report found that industry income for knowledge exchange activities grew from £906 million in 2014 to £947 million in 2015 – a 4.5 per cent increase in real terms.
Dr Docherty added that despite the challenges, university-business collaboration was “healthy and getting healthier”.