A new report The Changing State of Business-University Interactions in the UK 2005-2021, co-authored by Professor Ammon Salter, reveals the breadth and benefits of the connection between universities and business, but finds that firms' lack of internal capacity is preventing them from realising the full advantages of this relationship.
In 2021 the UK government published Build Back Better: our plan for growth, in which they stressed the importance of the links between universities and businesses for driving innovation. While the need to disseminate research findings to practitioners is widely acknowledged, there has long been a lack of understanding of the full scope of the relationship between higher education and business.
To address this gap, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) commissioned this research to find out what motivates business to partner with universities and identify the drivers for increased collaboration between the sectors.
Their research revealed that interactions between companies and universities have increased, on the whole, across a range of disciplines and locations. They categorised this activity into four areas:
- commercialisation, such as using academic publications and "spin out collaborations"
- community-based activities, like public lectures and school projects
- problem-solving, for example joint research and informal advice
- people-based activities, such as conferences and other types of knowledge sharing
In over 80% of these cases, the businesses found the interactions to be positive - meeting or exceeding expectations.
However, the findings also revealed barriers to collaboration, specifically businesses' lack of resources. They also found that companies were being held back by a lack of information from universities about how to partner with them.
The pandemic was also identified as a major obstruction, with levels of engagement falling between 2020-2022, particularly in high-tech manufacturing and other knowledge-intensive sectors. The knock on effects of Covid-19, and continued global instability, means that businesses in the UK are likely to face continued challenges that impact their inclination and ability to engage with higher education institutions. This has worrying implications for innovation activity and could have a knock-on effect on the entire economy.
The report stressed the importance of taking action to solve these issues, to maintain and increase the levels of interaction between universities and businesses. It also emphasised the need for policy makers to develop mechanisms to enable and celebrate collaboration.
Professor Salter said, “the report shows the rich diversity of interactions between UK universities and businesses, and that businesses greatly value these relationships. These interactions span well beyond STEM subjects and commercialisation, reflecting the broad tapestry of universities’ activities that impact and shape businesses’ knowledge, skills, and practices.”