Universities and businesses can achieve large mutual benefits by working together.

Universities are keen to show real-world impact by transferring theory into practice and training students with useful skills needed in industry.  From a business perspective, a company can tap into a large talent pool of students and academics to help drive business growth and collaborate on research for new products and services.  Companies of all sizes, from start-ups and SMEs to large international corporations can participate as universities are interested in all scales of collaboration.  But whilst the benefits of collaboration are evident, for many businesses it may not be clear how to engage with a university.

In the fields of digital and data science, where technology is advancing at a fast pace, keeping up-to-date with the latest methods and putting them into practice can be a real challenge.  Below I suggest 12 simple ways for businesses to collaborate with a university in digital and data science based on the offerings we have available at Queen Mary University of London.

1. Industry talks

A first step towards collaboration could be through a talk at the university. Most universities will have specific academics responsible for industry engagement who are the best points of contact for organising these events. Industry talks can both highlight the work being done in industry and provide a great way to engage university researchers with challenges faced in practice.

2. Student projects

Undergraduate and postgraduate students must complete a project as part of their degree course. Often students are keen to work on industry-based projects to include on their CV in an effort to impress future employers. By proposing student projects, companies will have an opportunity to work alongside the student and their academic supervisor on a business challenge.

3. Student internships, placements, and graduate hires

Most universities offer programmes that provide students with the opportunity to work in industry. An example is an industry placement, where a student will spend up to one year working in industry as part of their course. Businesses can also offer summer internships, with interns paid by the company. Both options provide companies with the chance to build a connection with a student and potentially employ them after the student has completed their course.

4. Consulting

Academics working in universities can provide consulting directly to companies.  This can be arranged flexibly; for example on a project basis or hourly / daily rate.  Consulting can also be arranged with students.

5. Knowledge Transfer Partnerships

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships are a UK-wide scheme that help business bring in new skills and the latest academic thinking.  A company can work with an academic to define a project, to which an associate is hired.  The associate works at the business, with direction and guidance from the academic. KTP projects are part-funded by the government and aim to deliver innovative solutions to business problems.

6. Research grants

Many funding bodies are expanding their programmes to support collaboration opportunities between universities and business. For example Innovate UK, part of UK Research Innovation, has invested over £2.5 billion to support businesses since 2007. Innovate UK offers a number of funding mechanisms to support business-led projects, including grants, whereby the company and university can both receive funding.

7. Industrial PhDs

Industrial PhDs relate to research-focused work that is driven by industry, for example an industry-funded PhD carried out in an academic research lab.  This route provides a great opportunity for companies to explore a research problem at a deep level but requires a bigger commitment than other options to see the PhD to completion as they typically take 3-4 years.

8. Funded research

Companies also have the option to fund academic research such as by funding a postdoctoral research assistant to perform focussed work on a project basis or for a fixed period of time. It is even possible for a company to partner with a university to sponsor an entire lab focussing on an area of interest.

9. Degree apprenticeships

Degree apprenticeships are designed to bring together the higher and vocational education.  A degree apprentice will split their time between university study and the workplace and are employed throughout.  This way, the apprentice can earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree whilst earning a wage and getting on-the-job experience.  Degree apprentices must be employed for a minimum of 30 hours a week and spend a minimum of 20% of their time in off-the-job training.

These last three routes are unique to Queen Mary however other universities may have similar programmes.

10. Mentoring

Queen Mary has a project called QMentoring, which connects an undergraduate student with a UK-based professional.  Through these one-to-one relationships, students are supported to make better informed career choices, develop their employability skills, and gain confidence with applying for graduate job roles. Mentors gain personal satisfaction, improve their professional development and networks, and raise the profile of their organisation amongst University students. The University prioritises the QMentoring places for students from low income backgrounds.

11. DERI Industrial Alliance

The Digital Environment Research Institute (DERI) is Queen Mary’s new institute focussing on digital, data science, and AI research.  DERI is in the process of forming an Industrial Alliance, which companies can join as members for a fee.  Membership provides access to DERI researchers, regular industry-academic days showcasing the latest DERI research, networking, seminars, and regular updates on the latest collaborative grant opportunities for joint academic / industry research.

12. Centre for Doctoral Training in Data-Centric Engineering

Queen Mary recently launched a new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Data-Centric Engineering.  The programme offers a professional doctorate qualification focused on workplace-based applied research, co-created with industry partners.  It provides an opportunity for employed professionals working in companies to be upskilled in data science and engineering research fields whilst remaining in employment with the company.  Students enrolled on the CDT benefit from a high-quality bespoke training programme with access to world-class researchers and facilities and leading to an EngD qualification.  The EngD qualification allows a portfolio-based approach to doctoral qualification with students able to conduct up to 4 research projects in related areas.

About the author

Greg Slabaugh is Professor of Computer Vision and AI at Queen Mary University of London, where he directs the Digital Environment Research Institute, focussing on the university’s research strengths in digital and data science.  He has a broad background in AI and data science, having held positions both in industry and academia.