Introducing her recent report on university-business collaborations, Dame Ann Dowling observes:
“…business-university collaboration has been an exceptionally popular target for reviews and studies in recent years”

You bet it has.  During the last five years, Government and Parliament between them commissioned nine reviews that included this topic – not including Dame Ann’s review.  For much of the last Parliament, at least one review was underway! Some of this pattern might reflect the Coalition Government’s preference for oversight of public policy through reviews rather than the targets adopted by the previous Labour administration.  But another explanation is the widespread recognition that good relationships between businesses and universities brings competitive advantages to firms, stimulating career opportunities for individuals and enriched teaching and research in universities. 

Dame Ann and her team were keen from the outset to build upon these previous reviews.  The NCUB therefore analysed the recommendations from a selection of reviews that were published between 2010-15 and contributed results of this work to Dame Ann’s team at the Royal Academy of Engineering.  We are of course delighted that Dame Ann chose to draw on our contribution in her final report.

NCUB’s selection of reviews contained 297 recommendations – almost one for every week of the last five years.  We left aside the challenge of implementing this flow of recommendations.  Instead, we examined the populations to whom the recommendations were addressed and we gathered the recommendations into categories to reveal the wider patterns.  To our surprise, only 3% of the recommendations were addressed to business and only 11% were addressed to universities.  This meant that 86%   of the recommendations were addressed to organisations other than the ones that were the subject of reviews.  Some 80% of the recommendations were addressed to Government or intermediary organisations.  NCUB is one of the intermediaries so we were delighted to be held in such esteem.  But it is surely odd that the two main communities – businesses and universities – attracted so little attention. 

Of course there are specific issues that only Government or public funders can address.  Dame Ann reinforces the wide support for HEFCE’s Higher Education Innovation Fund and the equivalent mechanisms in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Her report makes a forceful recommendation to Government on VAT liabilities for universities and businesses who wish to share accommodation. 

International comparisons show the UK to be one of the best countries in the world for university-business relations.  The NCUB’s State of the Relationship report – available elsewhere on this site – is packed with success stories.  And yet it is not difficult to find academics and business people who find it difficult to build relationships or who have found insurmountable obstacles to collaboration.  These challenges are not easy to address.  But maybe this time, by building so clearly on such strong foundations, we have a report that sets out pathways to better performance.

Professor Graeme Reid
Strategic Advisor, NCUB