We have been analysing in detail the impacts of the covid 19 pandemic on knowledge exchange (KE) – in our work with UCI and NCUB surveying universities and businesses, as well as in our own analysis and funding decisions last year.

Last week HESA released the latest data from the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey, which has added further insights into collaboration between universities and their external partners. Latest data provides for the first time evidence on impacts during a full academic year during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Notably this data has yet again highlighted the contribution universities make to innovation and enterprise and their resilience through a period of immense disruption and uncertainty.

Though university activity during the first five months of the Covid-19 pandemic (from March 2020) was captured in the previous 2019/20 HE-BCI data release, this 2020/21 collection gives us a more complete picture of both the effects on HE knowledge exchange, and how universities and their partners are adapting in the KE landscape.

Looking at the data, we can see university collaboration with external partners, including with business, stayed resilient with a growth in total KE income in the UK of 1.52% in 2020/21. When looking at the broader economic landscape across the last 5 years, total KE income in the UK has grown by 22% compared to a 20% increase for total UK GDP.

What can in fact be seen across a number of areas of KE, is a period of relative stability after initial declines during 2019/20. This may reflect the flexibility of universities and their partners to adapt to the extraordinary domestic and global situation. Overall income from KE activities to English providers fell by 1.8% to £4.09bn, and although this is first decrease since the economic and fiscal socks following the 2008 credit crunch, scrutiny of the underlying data for English universities provides a slightly more balanced insight:

  • Income from collaborative and contract research remained relatively stable at £1.4bn and £1.2bn respectively (making up nearly two thirds of the total income)
  • Income from CPD/CE and facilities and equipment-related activities were worst hit during the 2019/20 HE-BCI collection (falls in income of 16% and 10% respectively), but decline in their activities slowed to decreases of 6% and 2% in 2020/21 respectively. It might be anticipated that these fields would have been particularly affected by lockdowns, rather than this necessarily reflecting changes in demand long-term.
  • Income from consultancy contracts grew by 10% to £395m.
  • Although more likely to be affected by other external factors, income from regeneration programmes fell by 12%. Changes in this field may reflect changes in government policies on how to support growth and prosperity in different places, as much as change in university performance or effectiveness.
  • IP-related income fell by 11% to £226m.

In particular, although the overall income from intellectual property in England decreased in 2020/21 by 11%, the volume of activity was encouraging. Patenting activity remained strong with the number of patents granted increasing by 4% and the cumulative patent portfolio of all providers increasing by 3%, though growth slowed compared to 2019/20. A similarly strong, but slowed, growth in licensing activity was also seen in this period with an increase of 3% in the total number of licenses granted to English providers. These factors may reflect an increased focus by universities on sustaining their commercialisation efforts whilst there was an inevitable slowing of new companies and technologies growing product in the market in unstable conditions.

The number of companies spinning out of universities continued to grow with the number of newly registered spin-outs growing by 11% and the number of spin-outs to have survived 3 years also increasing by 14% demonstrating both the quantity and quality of these businesses. Estimated external investment in English spin-outs also grew by 115% to £5.2Bn, highlighting the confidence in English university spin-outs.

We know from studies conducted so far by Tomas Coates Ulrichsen at the UCI Policy Evidence Unit that universities have responded to the challenges presented to them during the pandemic, continuing to support business, local communities, and other external partners across a range of new and innovative activities. So these resilient results are not unexpected and reflect the confidence we can have in the responsiveness, adaptability and flexibility of university KE and of university partnerships in times of change. This has been reflected in past times, such as the crisis and recovery from the 2008 credit crunch.

There is also a lot more to learn from the detail behind these initial results, and we will be publishing a fuller analytical report of the data later in the summer. Unpicking the results for the breadth of providers from across different KE clusters will be crucial to understand the impacts on the different types of partnerships and activities across the sector. It will also be important to set the resilience of the UK alongside the performance of higher education sectors overseas, and a key comparison will be with the US.

Going forward, we need to continue to dig into details and track trends, including implications of new Government policies. As examples, recent NCUB analysis has flagged potential concerns around SME engagements, and we need to look at the how new government policies such as on levelling up will help with this. Increased national policy attention and support for commercialisation seems to have generated immediate positive effects. However, it will be interesting to see whether the policies set out in the Innovation Strategy more broadly than for universities can help develop these green shoots into the unicorns and gorillas of the UK economy of the future.

What we can do is pledge the support of Research England to help the HE sector deliver on all these national priorities and on the expectations of their partners. Reflecting this, we were pleased to see the Government’s recent recognition of the importance of our funding through HEIF to enable KE success, and their commitment to increase HEIF beyond the present £250m pa[1]. Increasing funding, together with our new initiatives such as the KE Framework, can help power university KE to play its part in delivering economic and societal prosperity.

[1] UK Digital Strategy – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)