The Higher Education Funding Council for England is planning a "third leg" of support alongside its funding of research and teaching. It wants to help institutions boost their "professional capability" through better links with the business world and local communities.
Brian Fender, HEFCE's chief executive, said that, historically, support for these collaborations has been targeted on particular government schemes and mechanisms. "We want to put more money into helping institutions develop long-term strategies for these activities. It is important that institutions recognise this as a core activity alongside teaching and research," he said.
The new support will benefit technology transfer, science parks, spin-off companies and technical services for firms. The support is also aimed at university links with non-profit making organisations. Professor Fender said these can have an important impact on wealth creation.
"Many institutions already do these things but it would be very unusual at the moment to find an institution thinking of all of them in an overall way. We want to encourage the kind of professionalism and rigour for these activities that the research assessment exercise has engendered around research," he said.
The proposal heralds a redrawing of the traditional research-teaching map. Professor Fender said: "Instead of being polarised along the teaching-research line you can begin to think of this as a third option. Instead of teacher-researchers you could have people whose main emphasis is on research and the application of research, or indeed teaching and the applications of teaching."
Professor Fender said that because "applications-driven" activities were, in general, more beneficial to the community and industry than academic research and teaching, HEFCE expected its own contribution to the initiative to be relatively small.
The council plans to earmark Pounds 15 million as its initial contribution, and hopes more financial aid will come from government departments including education and employment, and trade and industry, which are involved in developing the proposal.
If further substantial support is identified over the next few months, HEFCE will consult institutions on the proposals next January. Exactly how much money might be made available is unclear. Professor Fender said: "If we put in Pounds 15 million, we would want to see that doubled in the first instance - a first short-term goal for 1999. Then if things worked out, a tripling at least of that amount in three years, say to Pounds 100 million, would I think amount to a measure of success."
Professor Fender said the proposal was not a bid at "bribing people" to become more commercial or to take any money from research and teaching. He said: "People at the applications end might feel their work is being treated as if it is less important. We want to say their work is also a core activity."