Putting Humpty together? Ten years of business/university collaboration
- Published: Tuesday, 03 July 2018 14:29
- Written by David Docherty
In spring 2009, I was appointed CEO of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, the NCUB’s precursor, and spent the subsequent nine years working through the implications of The Lambert Challenge and The Laidlaw Conundrum.
I named these after the authors and Chairs of early Task Forces on University-Business collaboration: Richard Lambert’s 2003 government review, and 2008-9’s CBI report, chaired by Sam Laidlaw (both subsequently board members of the NCUB).
Over the years, we ran our own Task Forces on the creative and technology industries, manufacturing and engineering, food, digital health, and the innovation systems across the UK. And time and again we returned to the same set of issues, albeit with new answers and recommendations.
The problem at the heart of The Lambert Challenge is increasing innovation capacity in business. As he notes in his review: The biggest challenge…lies on the demand side. Compared with other countries, British business is not research intensive, and its record of investment in R&D in recent years has been unimpressive.
UK business research is concentrated in a narrow range of industrial sectors, and in a small number of large companies. All this helps to explain the productivity gap between the UK and other comparable economies. This has yet fundamentally to change, despite good policy work across multiple sectors.
The Laidlaw Conundrum poses a higher-order question, namely how do you align all of the actors, institutions, processes, and funders to create strategic, structural and effective collaboration.
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…" Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III 08
The UK has a world class higher education sector. But it faces some urgent challenges including the changing needs of business, intensifying international competition and constrained public-sector funding.
Effective collaboration between the higher education sector business and government will be critical to the UK’s economic recovery and sustainable international competitiveness. This is a conundrum, because, like Humpty, it is incredibly hard to put all the pieces together to make a functioning and organic whole, capable of evolving. It is easy to become shell-shocked, as it were.
Over the past nine years, governments and devolved administrations have continued to pore over this problem like a 19th century classicist with the Rosetta Stone. The roll call includes: Perkins on engineering skills, Shadbolt on computing, Sainsbury on technical education, Scotland’s enterprise and skills, Wales essential skills, Northern Ireland’s skills barometer, Nurse on the Research Councils and Innovate UK, Wilson on business-university collaboration (which set up the NCUB), Witty on universities and growth, Dowling on research, Coutu on scale-ups, Young on Business Schools, Reid on Scotland’s innovation centres, Diamond on Welsh university funding, Reid on Welsh research and innovation, Hauser on catapults, the various industrial strategy reviews, and England’s forthcoming post-18 skills review.
These efforts have paid dividends. The UK is, according to the World Economic Forum, 2nd in the world for research institutions, 6th for industry-university collaboration, and 7th for knowledge exchange and foreign direct investment.
However, the country tails substantially on some other pillars of the Laidlaw Conundrum: it stands 22nd for quality of education, a dismal 41st for maths and science education, and 24th for government procurement of advanced technology products.
Nonetheless, despite austerity, there have been substantial increases in research, technology development, knowledge exchange, teaching value, and student focus. So much so, that at the launch of UK Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation spoke of a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to push back the boundaries of knowledge and put it to practical use.
The UK Government is seeking to boost R&D by more than £80bn over the ten years from 2018; devolve skills and innovation to city-regional level actors; implement a Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF); and back the patient capital review to fund long-term innovation. All this is under the aegis of the Government’s commitment to grow national R&D to 2.4% of GDP.
It is important to remind ourselves that only a third of R&D comes from the public sector, and the remainder will have to come from private investment, and therefore that the Laidlaw Conundrum and Lambert Challenge will always be with us.
Even in this highly laudable collaborative environment there are still areas of tension such as the relationship between place and excellence, academic discipline and industry challenges, short-term profit, long-term investment, responsive and strategic funding, curiosity and priority.
There is almost a law of business thermodynamics that firms will only put effort in where they can benefit. Unfortunately, countervailing forces are at work, namely entropy – the tendency towards market disorder driven by technology and science - and occlusion, quite simply, no one can see the future, despite the fact that we must place bets on it.
Twenty-first century capitalism is a difficult beast to understand, let alone control. It simultaneously tends towards destruction and disorder and monopoly power: witness the rise of the Silicon Valley giants. The moral and economic challenge for government and universities, therefore, is to work with incumbents who seek to retain competitive advantage and insurgents either seeking to replace them or to reinvent the very sectors in which they previously existed.
For example, in the NCUB’s 2018 report on digital health and care, we noted the challenge to existing UK-based life-science firms (who heavily invest in UK R&D) from US-based technology firms, such as Amazon and Apple4. The 2.4% R&D target is, in some ways, dependent on backing a small number of big firms looking to stay that way, and a myriad of small companies driving for growth.
As collaborative success in the UK spirals upwards in ever increasing circles of knowledge, understanding, policy and practice, the countering competitive cyclones become ever stronger. The key questions before us today, unlike ten years’ ago is not that we lack great success stories, our State of Relationship report has documented hundreds over the years, nor that government is unwilling to fund collaborative mechanisms: it does and it will. No, the biggest issues are speed, scale, impact, leverage and collaborative culture and these must be at the heart of university/business partnerships for the 21st Century.
Collaboration problems endure for small and midsized firms, and, as our Task Forces demonstrated over the years, they are different sector-by-sector. But there are two underlying Lambert and Laidlaw challenges that have persisted throughout the last ten years, namely, the lack of knowledge about where to find anything in a university, or a scaled-up UK-wide innovation community, where academics are willing partners in sharing knowledge and practice.
And secondly, we lack a platform for offering the kinds of work experience that will give employers access to new (not necessarily) young talent that will flourish in the uncertain future ahead of us all.
After almost ten years as CEO at the NCUB, I intend to work on scaling-up digital solutions to these through a UKRI-backed innovation brokerage platform, Konfer.online, which already has contact details for over 130,000 academics, and Placer, a unique work experience start up, alongside JISC and Unite Students. And I have begun a research programme at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London called Knowing and Doing – the Once and Future University.
I am starting with a review of the impact of the 12th century University of Bologna on early municipal markets. The problems never go away, the solutions never last, but we should never stop trying.
David Docherty is the chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business