Over the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly impacted universities, businesses, and their interaction. They have faced direct disruption to their operations, new challenges in the way they work together, and shifting priorities and expectations.

Simultaneously, with the vaccine roll-out paving the way to recovery, the outputs of collaboration have never been so important, nor so clearly on display.

Whilst collaboration has been challenging at this unprecedented time, new data released this week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows that universities have put significant effort into supporting and maintaining their partnerships with their communities and businesses. Across a range of indicators, universities have ramped up activity and engagement in a clear sign of their centrality in combatting the crisis and leading recovery.

The results from the latest Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey showed that university interactions from July 2019 to August 2020, the first year in which the pandemic would have had a partial impact, went up in most areas, particularly in university commercialisation activity.

The headline figures from HE-BCI for 2019-20 include:

  • UK university income from interactions rose compared to the previous year, totalling £5.2 billion. Activity income in contract research, continuing professional development (CPD) and Continuing Education (CE) courses and regeneration and development programmes all increased.
  • 3067 patents were granted – up by 14.6% from 2018-19
  • 16505 licenses were granted – up by 29.8% from 2018-19
  • 174 newly registered spinouts – up by 4.2% from 2018-19
  • University income from knowledge exchange activities with businesses fell compared to the previous year to £909m, down from £955m in 2018-19

As the Government develops its Innovation Strategy, the high performance of university commercialisation, demonstrated by the growth in the number of patents and licenses granted, shows universities’ commitment to post-research translation, development and commercialisation activities beyond the pandemic. T

HE-BCI shows a good increase in the number of newly registered spinouts, as well as consistency in the number of active spinouts to have survived at least three years. This is important as we strive towards a thriving, knowledge-intensive economy. The sizeable increase in patents and licensing is also pleasing, as universities seize opportunities to commercialise their research.

The HE-BCI results also show an increase in income for regeneration and development programmes, further signs of positivity ahead of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper and Places R&D strategy. It is encouraging that universities are further demonstrating their contributions to local growth and the necessary upskilling of the population.

The challenges ahead

Although HE-BCI generally demonstrates the remarkable strength and resilience of the university sector, even in times of crisis, there are early signs of challenges on the horizon.

Perhaps most notable is the decline in both income from knowledge exchange activity with business and in the number of interactions with businesses, which is almost certainly significantly caused by the pandemic.

There is growing evidence that business innovation and collaboration has been impacted by Covid-19. Findings from a survey conducted by the Universities Commercialisation and Innovation (UCI) Policy Evidence Unit and NCUB showed universities reporting that Covid-19 had disrupted almost 90% of their business partnerships. A parallel report showed that 96% of businesses reported changes to their collaborative innovation-focused activities with universities as well.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that HE-BCI identifies a decline in university-business interaction, nor is it surprising that interactions with SME’s are more impacted than interactions with large firms. The number of interactions with large businesses fell by 2.3% between 2019-20 and 2018-19, whereas the fall in SME engagement was 38.9% in the same period. Our survey suggested that large businesses were more able to withstand the disruption to their operations, and this includes their ability to interact and collaborate with universities.

Many universities have pivoted their capabilities and collaborative services to find new ways of supporting businesses – often SMEs– in order to deal with the significant disruptions to their operations. In the pandemic, universities found new opportunities for productive and valuable interactions and partnerships beyond the immediate projects to address COVID-19 challenges. For example, moving certain activities online opened up new opportunities and access to a broader range of partners; some of the technologies, processes and approaches developed as part of the COVID response are now finding applications elsewhere; and longer-term opportunities for valuable engagement are now emerging from the partnerships formed with the local health system.

Had it not been for these actions, the fall in collaborative activities with business would surely have been worse.

Although the pandemic and lockdown measures understandably had an immediate impact on university-business interaction, it will be important to see how quickly interaction is able to recover. In the years ahead, evidence from the NCUB/UCI business survey showed that for the majority of businesses, easing Covid-19 restrictions will not lead to an immediate recovery in R&D and innovation activities. Rather it is likely that the recovery, as with previous crises, will take time.

The UK Government’s R&D Roadmap and subsequent Plan for Growth recognises that R&D and innovation will be critical to the UK’s economic and social recovery from Covid-19, as well as its response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and climate change.

One of the UK’s greatest strengths is its world class research base and globally renowned universities. Collaboration and interaction between universities and business is key to unlocking this potential. Harnessing the strength of collaboration is foundational to realising the UK’s ambition to become a global science superpower.