Firm friends: the UK needs better university-industry links

Theresa May’s new industrial strategy will support universities’ R&D, but more partnerships with business – while never entirely risk-free – are needed

March 9, 2017
Crawling under net
Source: Getty

The UK’s insecurities about industrial strategy run deep. The Germans are good at this stuff. The Asian tigers are too. The UK? Not so much. It’s a narrative that was employed in the run-up to the Brexit vote: Britain needed to return to its roots as a great industrial nation, open to global trade and investment and free from the shackles of the European Union.

To give prime minister Theresa May her due, this is one of the areas in which she’s moved swiftly to set out her thinking: plans for a new industrial strategy unveiled in January included a raft of proposals involving universities, particularly around investment in research and development.

“The UK invests 1.7 per cent of GDP in private and public funds on research and development,” the strategy says. “This is below the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] average of 2.4 per cent and substantially below the leading backers of innovation – countries like South Korea, Israel, Japan, Sweden, Finland and Denmark – which contribute over 3 per cent of their GDP to this area.”

At a time when it’s a national sport to denounce universities as the fat cats of the austerity era, it’s heartening for a government document to recognise that – taking the international comparison that’s appropriate when dealing with world-leading higher education institutions – more investment in this area will enable them to contribute even more to the health and wealth of the nation.

The Green Paper also makes the point that R&D funding could help to address the heavily London-centric nature of the economy, which is a problem both for individuals and for national productivity.

Such realignment would, of course, rely on a distribution of funding that did not simply focus on the golden triangle of Oxford-Cambridge-London.

While this proposed injection of cash and direction is welcome, Brexit also poses obvious challenges to university-business collaboration, with major investors believed to be considering their options.

In this week’s THE, a further warning is sounded by the Centre for Global Higher Education, which found that 43 per cent of publications produced by the UK’s biggest universities in partnership with foreign firms include at least one business based in the European Union. This may be because much EU funding requires some corporate involvement in the consortium, so leaving Horizon 2020, the EU’s flagship research programme, will do the industrial links of UK universities no favours.

If the industrial-sized chip that Britain carries on its shoulder is warranted, and if impending Brexit adds a renewed urgency to improve in this area, then what are others doing differently?

In our cover story this week, we look at some of the most interesting examples of university-business collaboration from countries including South Korea, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden.

What’s clear is that very tight links are not without their problems. Company cash can come with highly restrictive confidentiality requirements, for example. It tends to be focused in specific fields of research. And – as has been shown by the bribery scandal engulfing the technology giant Samsung – a university that hitches its wagon too firmly to an industrial partner can be jarred by potholes not of its making.

Martin Hemmert, professor of international business at Korea University Business School, argues that the likelihood of long-term reputational damage to the partner university is low, even in such an extreme case. But it may suggest that – as in most things – a more balanced portfolio of commercial tie-ups is a better model for most universities to pursue. In the UK context it’s also worth acknowledging the risks to blue-skies enquiry, in which the country’s elite universities excel, if the R&D requirements of industry were to replace, rather than augment, basic research.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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