When I took over as CEO of the predecessor body of the National Centre for Universities and Business, our new Chair, Sam Laidlaw, was concluding his Task Force for the CBI on university-business collaboration.

The steering group concluded that:
–    Employers must do a better job of laying out both the opportunities and their training needs to prospective students and have a responsibility to provide work experience and internships.

–    Business needs to view working with universities as a core part of innovation activity, and understand that university research must be paid for.

–    There had to be greater efforts to deal with educational disadvantage at the secondary school level to ensure a range of opportunities is open to all.

I was impressed by the methodology of bringing together Vice Chancellors and senior business leaders and our board decided that we should adopt a similar methodology. We signed off on both sector-based and place-based challenges.

The origin of the term Task Force highlights its utility as an idea. It originated in the US Navy as a way of assembling the right ships to undertake an operational challenge. Similarly, in organisational terms, a business task force assembles groups of experts to reflect, recommend and disband. Our first Task Force was on the creative and digital sector. Its report was called The Fuse and it became the model for how we worked. We assembled a strong mix of senior academics and executives, commissioned original research, and made clear and very few recommendations.

The difference between our work and others is that our reports are the beginning of the process not the conclusion. We have spent over five years working on the Fuse programme and, with partners, have raised over £12m to test the conclusions in the Brighton Fuse, London Fusion, and the North East Creative Fuse.

The second Task Force on Manufacturing and Engineering led to our relentless focus on bringing more women into engineering courses at university. And we launched the Talent 2030 website, the National Engineering Competition for Girls, and the Powering On programme that is monitoring university outreach to girls.

As well as sector based Task Forces (our last being the Food Economy), we have focussed on the ways in which we can liberate the inventiveness of universities to help businesses to innovate. Our report from UK-wide Task Force was called Growing Value – Business-University Collaboration for the 21st Century. It concluded that:

– The UK need to maintain the excellence of the UK Research Base through long-term strategic commitments from government.
– Government and its agencies must prioritise and finance collaboration, and the sharing of best practice in innovation between UK universities and businesses, both local and global.
– It’s crucial to promote entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial corporate management in universities in order to enhance risk-taking and innovation in business.
– We must develop consistent differentiated sector strategies to incentivise university-business interactions designed to match specific sectoral systems of innovation.

Following the success of this Task Force, we launched Growing Value: Scotland which has focussed on increasing the collaboration between business and universities in Scotland’s unique innovation ecosystem. Thus far we have produced an exhaustive account of Scottish R&D and interviews across the Scottish industrial base.

The final report will be launched with the Deputy First Minister of Scotland 25 May. After that it’s onto Growing Value: Wales. We have a saying in the National Centre – no report is left an orphan. Action is as vital as reflection and we continue to champion both. Our next sector Task Force will be on the digital health economy and we are as excited about it as we were with our first one six years ago.

Stay tuned.