Outsiders required to deliver economic impact

Nesta says universities need ‘boundary spanners’ to build commercial links and boost businesses. Hannah Fearn reports

May 1, 2009

Universities should recruit more staff from outside higher education to bolster the sector’s economic impact during the recession, according to the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta).

In a report published yesterday, The Connected University, Nesta calls on the higher education sector to employ staff with experience of working across the public and private sectors. It says these staff will help build links between industry and universities and, in doing so, boost the impact that research and education has on both the local and the national economy.

The report calls these new recruits “boundary spanners” – “people whose experience encompasses both public and private sectors and who can build links between them”.

The recommendations have caused concern among academics. “Too many institutions seem to be intent on ignoring academics; the very people who understand universities and higher education,” said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. “Education is about learning and scholarship, not marketing fads or business’ latest buzz subject. The development of courses must be a long-term, not a short-term, process, and quality higher education needs to be delivered by professionals.”

But Jonathan Kestenbaum, chief executive of Nesta, said it was important for higher education to broaden its horizons. “We need to create a culture in which time spent in industry is not seen as the poor relation of time spent in academia and can be viewed as a legitimate means to academic advancement,” he said.

“The ideas outlined in our report are about reducing clashes between the two areas by introducing people who have knowledge and understanding of business and academia. We are certainly not advocating that first-rate academics become second-rate entrepreneurs or vice versa.”

He added: “If universities, Government and business can work towards fostering such an environment, it will be of benefit to business, academics and the UK as whole.”

Mr Kestenbaum said it was up to the Government to help make this happen by freeing up funding for universities to train or take on new staff to perform this role.

The report also makes a number of recommendations to address the fact that knowledge exchange is still “patchy” within higher education.

Universities should ensure that technology-transfer organisations are performing at the standard set by leading UK institutions and should embrace the model of the “connected university” – which emphasises the importance of building links with firms. Funding streams such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund, distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, should also better measure the contributions that universities make to the economy.

The report concludes: “The recession presents a unique chance for us to realise the economic benefits of our first-class research base. This is an opportunity that the UK cannot afford to miss.”


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