Helping hand from academe to endure the credit crunch

Zoe Corbyn on how Hefce cash can support firms during the tightening recession

February 5, 2009

The deepening economic crisis is creating new opportunities for academics keen to work with local businesses to help them survive the credit crunch.

A £50 million emergency fund aimed at encouraging universities to fight the downturn was launched by the Higher Education Funding Council for England last month.

The money will fund practical projects designed to help local businesses survive the downturn and emerge from the recession in a stronger position.

"Our higher education sector is well placed to help employers and employees get through these challenging economic times and prepare for the upturn when it comes," said the Universities Secretary, John Denham, when announcing Hefce's Economic Challenge Investment Fund (ECIF).

The scheme is intended to be flexible in its approach to funding projects, explained Hugh Tollyfield, Hefce's special adviser on employer engagement.

"We are putting as little prescription into it as possible... it is very much for institutions to come to us with their ideas," he said, although he noted that the money had to be spent on projects that would deliver outcomes quickly.

A total of £25 million is on offer from Hefce to support about 50 universities, which in turn will match its investment.

While it is expected that many of the projects will provide more training and education - for example, reskilling the newly unemployed - the hope is that academics will also offer their knowledge and expertise to businesses through practical support, research and innovation.

"Academic help could be useful in determining growth sectors, customer demand in those areas, and how a company could position itself for the future," said Mr Tollyfield.

"Academics can use their expertise to benefit firms that the university already works with."

As an example, he cited how institutions situated near the factories of steel manufacturer Corus, which recently announced massive job cuts because of the slump, might attract ECIF cash.

"They might offer short courses to people who have been made redundant so they have better prospects in the job market, or they might look at opportunities for improving processes [such as steel production]," he said.

He said the aim was to ensure that "every university that thinks it could do something" has a go.

"This is trying to tap into the creativity that exists across the sector," he said.

But Mr Tollyfield also suggested that the way universities respond to the short-term needs of business would be important for the future.

"If universities help when times are hard, it is going to make it more likely that in the better times business is going to want to work with them on collaborative projects," he said.

Meanwhile, institutions are also launching their own funding programmes to help struggling local regions make it through the hard times.

For example, Newcastle University has unveiled a ten-step plan to help its regional economy fight the downturn.

The university sees the plan, which was launched last month and is estimated to be worth over £10 million, as part of its civic duty.

It includes accelerating capital and maintenance projects to maintain employment in the area, plus subsidised access to courses.

From the point of view of researchers, the plan introduces a "business voucher scheme" for small and medium-sized enterprises in the region.

Vouchers of up to £5,000 will be given to local businesses, to be redeemed against specialist advice or training.

"It comes from the university but it will go back into the schools that do the work," said Paul Younger, Newcastle's pro vice-chancellor (engagement).

"It means academics will get their hands dirty. Just as kids getting their hands dirty bolsters their immune systems, academics getting their hands dirty will give them a new perspective on the potential of their research," he said.

Universities in the West Midlands are running a similar scheme. Aston University's INDEX project provides local small businesses with vouchers worth £3,000 to buy academic support for innovation from universities in the region.

The ECIF, which provides maximum funding of £500,000 per university, is open to institutions only. Interested academics should pursue their proposals through their universities.

Bids can consist of a number of projects and collaborations with other institutions are welcome. The closing date for applications is February.

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