University-business links: focus on ‘value not volume’

Such partnerships are healthy but an NCUB report says more are needed to boost UK prosperity

May 11, 2016
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Quality is key: it is important to focus on quality and not volume, said Rosa Fernandez of the National Centre for Universities and Business

Universities "risk" the length and value of collaborations with businesses if they focus more on the number of partnerships they have as opposed to what they offer.

This is the view of Rosa Fernandez, director of research at the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), who made the comments ahead of the publication of its annual report on collaboration between universities and business in the UK.

The report says that business-university partnerships are healthy and continuing to grow.

It found that industry income for knowledge exchange in universities increased by 6 per cent to £896 million in 2014 – faster growth than both public and third-sector income – while between 2013 and 2014, universities’ interactions with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) grew 21.8 per cent, from about 67,100 partnerships to more than 81,000.

However, despite these achievements, Dr Fernandez said that there were still a number of areas in which universities could improve.

“Universities get a lot of demand from small businesses and at the moment they might feel that the volume of deals is more important than the depths of these deals,” she told Times Higher Education. “I think there’s a risk of focusing on the volume of deals so that [universities] say 'we're very engaged with our local business base' without thinking about what it implies in terms of length of collaboration and the value.

“What we know is good for universities are long-term partnerships, so smaller deals might not get you long-term partnerships, so one should be thinking about that.”

She added that how the money available from partnerships is being “distributed or concentrated” was important, especially at time when the level of investment in collaborations was not guaranteed.

Dr Fernandez also raised concerns about the drop in commercialisation efforts by academics, which was highlighted in another NCUB survey published earlier this year. She said that academics reported that they had half a day only each week to focus on knowledge exchange.

This was linked, she said, to the fact that funding from businesses’ research and development (R&D) budgets accounted for only about a third of universities’  knowledge exchange income (£300 million).

The flip side to this, she noted, and something the report showed, was that academic knowledge extended beyond its R&D worth for businesses and had value across other areas such as operations, marketing, procurement and human resources.

“Academics are waking up to the fact that what they do has value and can be sold to different functions in a business, not just to R&D,” she said. "Academics are definitely using their skills in research in more subtle ways, it’s not just about R&D grants.”

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