Lack of support thwarts strong alliances with business, institutions say

Sector embraces partnerships but finds cash and structure wanting. Elizabeth Gibney reports

June 21, 2012

Universities are keen to form partnerships with local businesses but uncertainty over funding hinders progress, delegates at a briefing on such collaborations heard last week.

Higher education representatives sit on the boards of 35 of England's 39 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) - bodies established jointly by local authorities and businesses to promote private sector growth.

But the scheme lacks structure and core funding, Lloyd Snellgrove, head of regional development at the Enterprise Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, told the briefing, Business-University Collaboration: Creating Partnerships to Enable Economic Growth.

Universities were enthusiastically embracing LEPs, but "there is a growing feeling that unless something starts to happen, some business partners will start to walk away", he said at the event, held in London on 13 June.

The partnerships were established by the government alongside the Regional Growth Fund - worth £2.4 billion over four years - in 2011 to replace nine regional development agencies, established under the previous government, which collectively had an annual budget of at least £1.4 billion a year.

Mr Snellgrove said that the combined resources of the Regional Growth Fund and the Technology Strategy Board - the government's innovation body - were "nowhere near the same amount" as the sums the RDAs spent on innovation.

"That is a real issue," he said.

A survey of university representatives on LEP boards carried out by Universities UK in March found institutions to be successfully using the bodies to build relationships with new businesses and to get higher education issues on the table, said Rachel Cummins, a policy researcher at UUK.

But respondents to the survey added that the lack of funding and structure were "big challenges that need to be addressed to make sure the LEPs are sustainable and deliver what they're intending to".

Universities have a huge amount to offer but should realise that they will never be a panacea for the UK's growth problems, Mr Snellgrove added.

He said that slow growth in the value of industry contracts and an uncertain future for England's Higher Education Innovation Fund meant there would be "no white knight" for innovation funding.

The government is expected to lay out its proposals in this area when it responds to Sir Tim Wilson's Review of Business-University Collaboration later this month.

Meanwhile, a survey of about 30 delegates at the event found that 86 per cent believe that the government's expectation that universities should stimulate economic growth is unrealistic without sufficient investment in the sector.

Delegates were split almost exactly down the middle on whether or not LEPs would have a significant impact on brokering business-university collaboration.

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