Universities that cosy up to big business could find the benefits are mutual, reports Anna Fazackerley
Sir Howard Newby, former funding chief, is on a mission to push his university to the top of the league for commercial exploitation.
Sir Howard shocked the sector when he left the top job at the Higher Education Funding Council for England to head the University of the West of England six months ago.
This week he set out plans for a "UWE Federation", saying that he aimed to break the mould on knowledge transfer, with a much stronger emphasis on learning and teaching.
He told The Times Higher : "Until now, knowledge transfer has been synonymous with research but that has been a partial way of looking at it."
He added: "People go to companies but need refresher courses.
Continuous professional development is just as important as setting up science parks and spin-off companies."
One arm of Sir Howard's approach will be to focus more on the needs of companies when training undergraduates. Faculties are talking to industry about what should be in their curriculums, in the hope that students will move seamlessly into the job market.
"We have many big multinational companies locally. Our graduates will have the kinds of skills these employers want, both in the private and public sectors. In a top-up fees market, this is what students are looking for,"
Sir Howard said.
UWE has also partnered with big companies such as Airbus to provide work-based learning, usually based in the companies themselves.
The university will retrain 250 graduate engineers a year for Airbus, teaching them how to deal with composite wings rather than traditional metal ones.
Sir Howard has also formed a franchise of 12 further education colleges in other towns and cities including Cheltenham, Cirencester and Stroud.
"Some of the students we might want to attract won't move to Bristol. With the federation, it is quite likely that they wouldn't ever come to UWE. But we will deliver higher education qualifications with and through our partners," he said.
Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research and knowledge transfer at Hefce, said: "With the most recent allocation we explicitly say that the knowledge transfer that institutions undertake should be in keeping with their own mission. That could mean knowledge transfer that flows from teaching as well as research."
A 'buffer zone' for Aardman Animations
Paul Gough, dean of the University of the West of England's School of Art, Media and Design, was delighted when his name came up in the credits of animated film Chicken Run. But his association with Aardman Animations, the Bristol studios where Wallace and Gromit were born, has not ended there.
Most of the animation courses at the university are tailored to meet the needs of the company, developing skills such as storytelling, directing and puppeteering. Directors from Aardman teach at the university, and masters students are given the chance to present ideas straight to the company.
"Since the global success of Wallace and Gromit, every animation student in the world seems to make their way to Bristol. We get students from Argentina, Poland, India and, more recently, lots from South Korea. South Korea wants to be the Hollywood of animation in the next ten or 20 years,"
Professor Gough said. "They could just bang on Aardman's door, but we act as a buffer zone."
He added: "The Aardman directors know they are getting old. They need to plug into youth."
But David Sproxton, one of Aardman's founders, pointed out that the UK lagged behind Europe on masters degrees in animation. "One of the things we are keen to do with UWE is to raise the bar."