This article was first published in Research Professional.

The UK government’s 2021 Plan for Growth highlights the importance of “strong partnerships between universities and businesses”. Such partnerships are often framed narrowly, in terms of the commercialisation of research findings. But if the UK is to achieve long-term economic growth in a challenging socio-economic context, then policymakers, universities and businesses all need a better understanding of the full scope of this interaction and the motivations behind it.

To that end, today sees the publication of a report, The Changing State of Business-University Interactions in the UK 2005-2021, presenting the results of a survey of nearly 4,000 companies. This research, for the National Centre for Universities and Business, was conducted by the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge and funded by Research England. A discussion report appears alongside the survey results.

The survey reveals both an increasing number of interactions between companies and universities and the barriers that remain.

It also shows the impact of the pandemic: 34 per cent of companies reporting an effect on their interactions with universities, with those in high-tech manufacturing and other knowledge-intensive sectors particularly affected. Action is needed if the UK is to prevent disengagement between businesses and universities.

Mixed motives

The report illustrates the breadth of interaction between companies and universities, divided into four categories: commercialisation, such as using academic publications and spin-out collaboration; community-based activities, such as public lectures and school projects; problem-solving, such as joint research and informal advice; and people-based activities, such as conferences and other routes for knowledge exchange. The last two of these have grown particularly strongly.

The survey shows companies of all sizes interacting with different types of universities in a diverse range of disciplines and places. In 80 per cent of instances, these interactions meet or exceed expectations.

Over the period surveyed, an increasing proportion of micro- and small businesses—those with fewer than 50 employees—started interacting with universities. And among companies that do not interact with universities, the percentage that perceive interaction as not relevant to their business has fallen from 68.6 per cent to 42.2 per cent.

The research also shows why businesses are interacting with universities, by identifying which part of a company motivated the connection. Of these, the most common was technology and process development, mentioned in 34 per cent of cases. This was followed by the introduction of new products or services (25.4 per cent), marketing and sales (19.9 per cent), and operations (16.8 per cent). There is, then, diversity both in the type of interaction, and the thinking behind it.

Challenging times

So far, so positive, yet there are still barriers. Of these, lack of resources remains the most important, mentioned by 52 per cent of companies. This is a longstanding problem requiring further investigation. But some stumbling blocks, such as agreement on intellectual property and geographical proximity to a university, were less prominent than one might expect, mentioned only by a minority of respondents.

In the context of the pandemic and additional global instability, many businesses in the UK face existential challenges that will affect their ability and appetite to engage with universities. This could have knock-on effects on innovation inactivity and undermine the government’s ambitions to create a highly skilled, knowledge-intensive economy across the whole of the UK.

Increased financial constraints on universities, resulting from policy changes and the wider economic context, mean that higher education institutions cannot be expected to boost business engagement single-handedly. Instead, policymakers will need to consider the full breadth of business-university interactions, the motivations for each, and whether the mechanisms in place to support them are adequate.

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