From ministerial decrees to vice-chancellors’ statements there is a wealth of support for increased collaboration between universities and business, particularly at the cutting-edge of science and technology. Government reports and industry bulletins have proclaimed the dawn of the ‘Big Data’ age and the criticality of effective data analysis for UK business.

“In seeking partnerships with business, universities must be creative and flexible since it is unlikely that even the most well-considered partnership offering will be optimal for all organisations and circumstances.”

As Business Engagement Manager for Lancaster University’s Data Science programme I’m therefore well-placed to assess to what extent support and enthusiasm is being translated into effective university-industry partnerships. Whilst our initiative is relatively new and our partnership activity is a work in progress, I’ve already met representatives of SMEs, vast commercial enterprises and third sector organisations.

Throughout this activity I have encountered a strong desire for university collaboration, but have heard the same perceived barriers described in many places. It is well-appreciated that UK universities are amongst the most productive and most prestigious HEIs in the world. External organisations have expressed a clear understanding of the benefits of access to leading researchers and also the value of the legitimation conferred through collaboration with a UK university. These sentiments are, however, tempered by concerns over whether the potential benefits of partnership would actually be realised.

I encountered a prevailing perception of a sharp cultural difference between commercial and academic worlds. Working to correct those mis-perceptions and show university readiness to engage with business is crucial for successful partnerships. 

Universities were perceived as being motivated by a desire to conduct and publish research, whereas commercial enterprises emphasised their need to protect IP rights and commercial confidentiality, ensure the exploitation of new technologies and be reactive to customer requirements.

However, in reality universities are increasingly focused on establishing sustainable working relationships within the private sector, with universities like Lancaster making community and business engagement a strategic priority.

SMEs also expressed concerns over different working timescales. SMEs within the data analytic space stated that their continued success was reliant on an ability to react rapidly to changes in the business environment and capitalise on innovation. This made them want to work with researchers, but they also feared that universities might require more time then they had. 

A further concern regarded the ability of university resources (e.g. placement students) to bridge the gap from academic to commercial worlds and be effective within the workplace. Almost all employers emphasised the need for the establishment of a range of ‘soft skills’ (including communication, problem solving and work organisation) in students prior to being brought into contact with external organisations.

The possession of soft skills and appropriate motivation was felt to be especially important in short-term placement collaborations, where a student has little time to adjust to the conditions of the new workplace. At Lancaster we’ve responded to this by ensuring every intern on our internship scheme, our shortest-term placements scheme, complete a preparation for work workshop to ensure they have those soft-skills so desired by employers.

Many external organisations were unsure of the routes to collaboration offered by universities. SMEs, in particular, were unsure of how university partnerships could be explored and expressed concern as to whether their enquiries would receive appropriate consideration.

Representatives from larger organisations, on the other hand, worried that it was hard for the university to speak with a single voice as different departments had different perspectives.

“It is clear that there is still some work to do by universities to burst these mis-perceptions.”

It is clear that there is still some work to do by universities to burst these mis-perceptions.

There is an increased recognition that these partnerships must be flexible, with creativity in creating frameworks to enable collaborations to take place. At Lancaster we have specialist staff to deal with SME’s inquiries and match them to the appropriate skills and funding streams, including myself as part of a specialist business partnerships team in the Faculty of Science and Technology.

Clear benefits are being shown in having an approachable resource prepared to act as relationship manager through the exploration and establishment of partnership activities. This activity is greatly aided if the university is able to share case study information showing the format of prior successful collaborations. This is something that we do online.

For the data science project we have been able to prepare a range of partnership options through seeking to understand the motivations and concerns about university collaboration held by external organisations. We have a clear route to access, defined timeframes, and formal agreements with each company we engage with, clearly setting out what will be achieved, and predicted outputs.

The flexibility in our approach has allowed us to recruit 20 commercial partners, including 12 new to the university, within just two months. The sheer diversity of the partners being recruited will ensure a wide set of challenges and hopefully provide fresh insight as to which factors ensure success.

We are using our experience with businesses to provide a truly innovative programme and across the engagement sector to ensure the full benefits of partnership can be enjoyed.

Looking at the track-record of other recent engagements with industry we are confident that these new partnerships will be able to add genuine value to the companies involved, as well as provide a vital boost to the skills and employability of our students.

Dr Simon Tomlinson is Business Engagement Manager for Lancaster University’s Data Science programme

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