'We can't be on call for firms'

May 2, 2003

Industry is making unrealistic demands on universities, researchers have told the Treasury-initiated Lambert review of links between business and higher education.

The Association for University Research and Industry Links (Auril) says that too often companies see universities as suppliers of services on demand rather than partners who can deliver long-term economic growth.

"Universities are not designed to deliver what the company needs at any given moment," its submission says.

And lobby group Save British Science - which has 1,500 academic members but includes venture capitalists, financiers and industrial companies among its institutional members - warns the review that business links are not the primary concern of universities. These fears seem borne out by the submission from BAE Systems, one of world's leading technology companies.

It says that academic peer review should be scrapped and research funding controlled jointly with industry if the UK is to secure a fair return from the billions of pounds of taxpayers' cash invested in universities.

BAE's submission presents a radical vision of the future that would destroy higher education's hegemony over public research funding, which stands at nearly £5.2 billion this year, and abolish the peer review-driven research assessment exercise.

The BAE submission condemns the RAE system for reinforcing inertia. It argues that academics have little incentive to look beyond their areas of research expertise for fear of jeopardising RAE ratings and therefore income.

The submission says that the RAE "encourages academics to remain in research areas where they can be prolific with publications. Moving out of the comfort zone towards industrial needs can compromise numbers of publications."

It says: "Current funding mechanisms set the tone for partnerships and usually put industry as a far-from-equal partner, leaving scope for the university commercial departments to set the terms and conditions on how the national funding is used.

"Industries can then be selected that fit in with these conditions. Those that do not accept can end up not getting access or timely access to the research output funded out of UK taxes."

BAE claims that the cost to businesses, what it calls the "entrance ticket", for becoming involved in university research is too high. BAE has about 50 primary academic partners. The submission says: "We cannot afford to put £0.25 million to £0.5 million per annum into all of these partners."

The BAE submission also calls for more industry say in university course design. It says: "Courses appear to be driven by what is popular with students rather than what industry needs and regardless of whether there is a career waiting for them."

Auril argues that higher education interaction with business needs to move towards a more sustainable model where the beneficiary company covers the full cost of the activity.

It says: "Otherwise, reach-out activity will merely drain resource from other university core activities."

SBS says that over the past decade, universities have become extremely effective at working with business, as proved by the recent Higher Education Business Interaction Survey and by the fact that they obtain a higher proportion of their income from private industry than their counterparts overseas.

The Lambert review should focus on how to encourage UK business to take advantage of these changes, and not perpetuate "the myth that universities are badly managed ivory towers that are uninterested or unskilled at working with business".

In its submission, Imperial College London suggests many of its own activities as examples of good practice.

It says that university staff need to cultivate a marketing attitude to enable them to identify which companies would benefit from their expertise.

Institutions should also employ commercially experienced staff to manage such links, taking on price negotiation and customer satisfaction. Customer relationship management systems are needed to ensure a coordinated approach to industry.

The government needs to intervene in the management of intellectual property, as certain industries insist on ownership of any IP generated.

This is a disincentive for universities to engage with these sectors.

Imperial suggests a government-sponsored programme to encourage industry to second staff to universities to engage in business development.

The government should also provide a package to encourage small to medium-sized enterprises to use universities for consultancy.

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