Scotland’s universities are among the best in the world, with four of our major institutions represented in the Times Higher Education World Top 200 – punching well above our relatively modest size weight and enjoying a well-deserved reputation for academic excellence right across the world. And the impact of our work – relative to our size – stands up to comparison with the very best in the world.

The research of our universities is leading the way in helping to meet some of the major social, economic and environmental challenges facing the international community in the 21st century. At the University of Glasgow, even just in the last few years, we’ve spearheaded global efforts to combat the Zika virus, played a central role in the detection of Gravitational Waves and are undertaking world-changing work to address inequalities both at home and abroad. And institutions right across Scotland have similar success stories.

But our impact is not only social. Our universities are already major driving forces of Scotland’s economy – referred to by Scottish Government Finance and Economy Secretary Derek Mackay “engines of knowledge and growth”. And while our economic impact is already very clear – I firmly believe that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.


“And while our economic impact is already very clear – I firmly believe that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. “

Our potential as a sector and as a nation is so great, that I think there is so much more we can achieve if we work together as a sector and as a country to take the right policy decisions and create the right environment to allow that great potential to be fulfilled.

That’s why I was delighted to be asked by the Finance and Economy Secretary to undertake a major new report focused on how Scotland’s universities can improve our engagement with industry and boost our contribution to economic growth.

The fact that the report has been commissioned at all is deeply heartening – showing the level of emphasis the Scottish Government is placing on the role of universities in delivering inclusive economic growth. This is a role our sector must be willing to embrace.

We can and should be the driving force of Scotland’s economy – the quality of our institutions and our research is a competitive economic advantage we simply must capitalise on in the coming years. And we should not forget that we have an obligation to the communities we serve to ensure that they see the economic benefits of the often world-changing work we undertake.

The notion of demonstrating economic, social and cultural impact is now central to our Universities. As academic institutions we have a duty to ensure the benefits of our work are felt in our communities.

The report will consider how the immense strengths of Scotland’s universities can be channelled to the maximum economic benefit for our country by enhancing industrial partnerships and promoting greater collaboration across the sector.

This is a topic where much research and evidence is already available on an international basis, and I don’t want to see Scotland re-invent the wheel in this space. That’s why I’m determined to learn from and build on international best practice and to advise on how Scotland can learn from and build on the work being done by other innovative European economies.

Already, I have undertaken a major programme of engagement on the report, hearing the views of colleagues from industry, economic development agencies, funding bodies and, of course, representatives from other Scottish universities. Over the coming months, I will continue to meet and hear the views of many more people – I am determined that the report will hear from representatives of all actors in the space at as high a level as possible.

What is also heartening has been the enthusiasm of the response from those I have already spoken to, and those who are keen to give me the benefit of their thoughts. Already, I’ve been inundated with fascinating insights and ideas which have given me much to consider as the report begins to take shape.

“My aim in producing the report is to develop a small number of headline recommendations for all actors in the space – government, universities, industry and economic development agencies.”

My aim in producing the report is to develop a small number of headline recommendations for all actors in the space – government, universities, industry and economic development agencies. I have no intention to simply produce a shopping list of demands on government: if we are to meet our potential in this space, government will just be one of a number of organisations who have a major role to play.

But of course, as we take forward the report, we have to recognise that we are starting from a very strong position. Already across the country, exciting partnerships with major industry, SMEs, spin-outs and social enterprises are already underway, with many success stories to be celebrated.

Using my own institution as an example, Glasgow leads the world-renowned Clinical Innovation Zone which offers a unique opportunity for industry to work together with academics and clinicians within the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in the growing field of Precision Medicine – just one of the many in which Scotland has the genuine potential to lead the world. Already, the Clinical Innovation Zone is creating an eco-system unparalleled anywhere else in the world and is delivering real results – seeing industrial partners relocate to and invest in Scotland from Europe and as far afield as California.

We also have plans to build a new Clyde Waterfront Innovation Campus in the southside of Glasgow specifically to allow for greater industrial collaboration in areas like quantum technology, nanofabrication and photonics – as well as enhancing our offer to industry in Precision Medicine. The impact in terms of jobcreation, inclusive economic growth and regeneration in the City is huge – and already dozens of industrial partners have signed up to the project.

Both of these successes in Glasgow are examples which are replicated right across Scotland.

If the right infrastructure, the worldleading research and an effective innovation eco-system is available, industry will make use of it – to our mutual benefit. These are the type of successes we want to build upon – and to see become the norm in the years to come.

In recent years we have developed very successful policy interventions, such as the Innovation Centres which were initiated by the Scottish Funding Council and which are receiving re-investment by SFC and Scottish Enterprise. The report by Graeme Reid on Scotland’s Innovation Centres shows that we have been able to begin to address some of the market failures which pervade the space between university research and business innovation.

“A number of our universities have developed close relationships with business focused on innovation.”

A number of our universities have developed close relationships with business focused on innovation. City Deals in Scotland, such as the Edinburgh City Deal where the University of Edinburgh played a key role, together with other HE institutions in the City, have increasingly focused on the important role of innovation and skills. Many of these innovation successes are based on the foundations of research successes which were fuelled by earlier public investment and the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of our Universities.

But of course, we know that there must be room for improvement.

We know that more could be achieved through better co-ordination and collaboration between our institutions and funding agencies. It would be surprising if we did not have major lessons to learn. We know that Scotland suffers from very low levels of business R&D compared to its levels of R&D in Higher Education. We know that there are opportunities to leverage more funding into Scotland, from international business, from the UK industrial strategy, from UKRI, from international agencies. The funding landscape for innovation is changing so it would be surprising that we might not be able to do better, to respond to external incentives, to play an even greater role in driving economic prosperity for Scotland.

Our universities only succeed when Scotland succeeds – and Scotland will only meet its full economic and social potential with a thriving university sector, working with industry and other partners and translating our world-leading work into tangible economic benefits for our country.

Our goal as a nation must be to make Scotland the best place in the world for industry to partner with universities in the common good – linking social impact with tangible economic growth and job creation.

I have every confidence that the fundamentals are there to make this a reality for Scotland. And I am very much looking forward to playing my part with colleagues from the Scottish Government, industry and across our university sector in helping make this happen.

This article first appeared in the 2019 State of the Relationship report published 19 June 2019.