03 April 2019

Partners for prosperity

Once, businesses consumed what universities produced. Now the roles are blurring – and the boundaries must be eroded further, argues Joe Marshall of the National Centre for Universities and Business.

Late last year, a vast new six-floor building opened its doors on the edge of Leeds University’s campus. Further west, at around the same time, the University of Liverpool was launching an even larger facility in the city’s Knowledge Quarter.

Nothing unusual in campuses extending their lab and office space. But what is significant about both developments is who will be working inside them. Each is specifically designed to house academics and businesspeople, working together.

The Leeds centre, known as Nexus, aims to help firms tackle real-world problems through the university’s expertise in health, data, environmental and engineering studies. Liverpool’s venture is dedicated to the study of advanced materials, and is just the latest phase in the university’s long-term partnership with Unilever.

Sharing spaces

For Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), both initiatives are heartening examples of a growing trend in collaboration.

Education institutions and businesses have long traded equipment, ideas and graduates for mutual benefit. But Joe sees the Liverpool and Leeds schemes as a step forward from such transactional relationships.

“We’re starting to see more businesses and universities consolidating these relationships into strategic partnerships,” he says. “In some cases they are creating spaces together, and co-locating to work on shared projects.

“Rather than being locked in to specific outputs, there is sometimes scope for each organisation to mingle their staff – which is where some really serendipitous ideas start to emerge.”

Feedback loops

This kind of committed partnership needs to be replicated across the country if business and academia are to play their part in achieving the ambitions set out for the UK economy in the government’s industrial strategy.

Skills are key. Employers are relying on universities to help them equip their existing workforces for new roles, alongside skilling up the next generation for a digital future with fast-evolving business models.

“The gestation period for new products is becoming faster, with consumers having a bigger input – but are graduates equipped for that environment?” Joe asks. “It’s important that universities have powerful, effective feedback loops, where businesses can say ‘our model is changing, so a course designed three years ago might need to be updated’.”

Meanwhile, helping to haul UK investment in R&D above the OECD average of 2.4 per cent from its present uninspiring 1.7 per cent is one of the most demanding challenges on Joe’s desk, especially given the current state of public finances.

As it stands, 400 UK companies represent three-quarters of all R&D investment. “It’s a startling statistic, even given that there is a very long tail of smaller investors,” Joe says. “If we’re to realise the target, R&D needs to become the norm, rather than the exception.”

Front door

Naturally, not every business or university can hope to co-fund a state-of-the-art research facility. But examples of successful collaboration go far beyond the obvious high-tech firms and major institutions.

Joe points to the National Trust’s use of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships to improve the user experience of visitors to historic homes, and to Abertay University’s world-leading work with the computer games industry.

He accepts, however, that big corporates currently enjoy an advantage in having the contacts and resources to access potential academic partners.

“Part of universities’ strength is that they are diverse, vibrant places. But they are quite federated institutions – which means they often have no need for a ‘front door’,” Joe says. “They could be better at democratising their knowledge exchange to more small and medium-sized businesses.”

The NCUB aims to spur this process through development of a new tool, konfer. Updated daily, it will bring together information on the entire wealth of research in UK universities.

Role for banks

Banks have their part to play here too. Alongside the financing of projects, they are well placed to connect up different elements of their diverse client bases for potential collaboration, says Joe.

This is echoed by Suzy Verma, Head of Public Sector and Education at HSBC UK. She says the bank’s work with universities goes beyond simple financing of projects: “As a business we set out to build lasting strategic partnerships that will help each institution achieve its goals.

“Our teams help other businesses to do the same, using the power of our huge domestic and international networks. We’re well placed to point client businesses to education institutions that have the potential to help them grow.

“As an employer, we’re also adopting the degree apprenticeship model as a way of bringing new and diverse talent into the business. And we never miss an opportunity to encourage other businesses to make the most of the apprenticeship levy in this way.”

Blurred lines

Appointed to his role in summer 2018, Joe hopes his term will see a further steady erosion of the cultural boundaries between business and academia.

“Traditionally, they have talked different languages and moved at different speeds,” he says. “But we’re moving beyond the roles of the university as producer – of ideas and graduates – and business simply as a consumer. The lines are blurring in lots of different ways.”

 


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