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The State of the Relationship report reveals resilience in the higher education sector in the face of impending change

  • 25 June 2019

This is a guest blog from Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), building on last week’s State of the Relationship Report about the relationship between universities and business.

The last year has been anything but steady. From the machinations in Westminster and uncertainty over Brexit, to a Post-18 Review which gave with one hand while threatening to strike with the other. So it is heartening to see resilience and strength in universities’ collaborations with industry.

The data captured in the 2019 report consider the academic year after the 2016 referendum. The main findings include:

  • A suggestion that universities are experiencing collaborations with businesses differently depending on size. The number of interactions with small and medium-sized enterprises fell 13 per cent, but the size of the average deal rose by 22 per cent. In contrast, there was an increase of 1.6 per cent in interactions with large businesses, but a 4.5 per cent decrease in size.
  • Universities issued 38.4 per cent more licences, but income fell from £125.8 million to £101.7 million – or 22 per cent. This is not concerning as a snapshot, given the inevitable fluctuation in licensing and income remains above the five-year average.
  • There was an increase of 16.1 per cent in granted patents and the number of spin-off companies that have survived for at least three years grew by 4 per cent. These figures paint a picture of a steady increase in the ability of universities to capture and sustain the value of their interactions with business. This is leading to strong performances in intellectual property and safeguarding against early exits.
  • University income from business interaction fell by 1.1 per cent to a total of £954 million. This a continuation of an existing trend from last year but the fall is at a much slower rate than it rose in the years prior.
  • There was a 2.3 per cent increase in the share of investment in research and development (R&D) from business sources, though a real-terms contraction. This presents a challenge for Government ambitions to increase R&D investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP. However, an 8.1 per cent increase from overseas sources – to £1.46 billion – speaks to continued success in attracting foreign direct investment, underlining the excellence of the UK’s research base.

The contents themes of the Report consider overarching topics across both innovation and skills:

  • Research and innovation – Nurturing and developing the ideas economy is in the DNA of all our universities. From cutting-edge research and discoveries through to the training and development of crucial innovation skills, our universities are critical partners in realising the ambition of an advanced knowledge economy. Universities don’t always separate out their activities in research, teaching and enterprise. They are all part of what they do and why universities are ideal partners for businesses that take an equally holistic view of developing and implementing new ideas.
  • Skills – The fabric of what we take to be a university is changing. There are proposed variations in tuition fees, regulatory changes opening ‘the market’ up to new providers, new education routes being driven by Apprenticeship Levy contributions and concerns over ‘technical’ routes. Universities are not immune to challenge. The world around them is changing and the next generation of students will seek different opportunities and arrive with different expectations. Universities must adapt and evolve to stay relevant, building on the partnerships they forge with others.
  • Place – It is a question of shifting the narrative away from the critics’ favourite topic of self-interest, to a demonstration of the breadth and depth of value. Universities offer benefits locally, as well as nationally and internationally through partnerships and collaborations with others. From capital investments in new facilities through to shared approaches to skills pipelines. Year-on-year, we hear of a greater quantity of, and better quality, interactions with SMEs, which are finding the capacity to work with local universities. And universities are connecting these relationships to big businesses, articulating their role in the supply and value chains of organisations. The nascent Local Industrial Strategies bear the hallmarks of this.

The opportunity resides in being an integral, indispensable, part of the ecosystem and demonstrating a collective strength. But universities must not be afraid to use their voices as employers, as well as educators, as innovators and trendsetters and as knowledge banks and experts in business-critical issues. If they do, and they build on the strengths of their relationships and partnerships, then we can move into a future UK stronger – and together.

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