The Covid-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption to many universities’ activities that help to drive innovation in the economy. Nearly 90% of UK universities cited that a significant proportion of innovation projects had been delayed, according to a  new survey  of 61 UK universities released today.

The new findings show that during the first national lockdown:

  • 88% of UK universities cited that a ‘significant proportion’ (more than 10%) of their innovation projects had been delayed.
  • Nearly half (48%) of universities reported that the scale and scope of projects were being reduced.
  • More than a third (36%) of universities saw more than 10% of their innovation activities and projects with external partners being cancelled.
  • Nearly half (45%) of universities saw declines of at least a 6% in the overall level of innovation activities they have with industrial partners. Activities in strategic sectors such as aerospace and automotive manufacturing and within the creative industries are reportedly much more adversely affected.
  • The lack of financial resources to support collaborations, insufficient government funding to such activities and the current inability to access the necessary facilities and equipment for work to continue are reasons behind these changes.

Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of NCUB said: “Covid-19 has brought the importance of collaboration between academia and industry firmly into public awareness. Indeed, breakthroughs such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine are only possible because of the advent of collaborative partnerships. This is why the new survey data released today is so worrisome. Nearly 90% of universities have been forced to delay a significant proportion (more than 10%) of new innovation projects with external partners, and over a third have reported that projects have been cancelled.”

Marshall continued: “Maintaining these types of innovation projects is vital if we are to boost productivity, improve livelihoods, and drive forward economic recovery. Innovation requires collaboration. And we see time and time again that collaboration requires strong partners. We are therefore urgently encouraging all businesses and UK universities to continue to form these vital partnerships. What’s more, we are also calling on the Government to take proactive steps to help companies stay afloat and investing in R&D through the crisis. This includes extending Covid-19 support schemes and postponing repayment of loans until lockdown restrictions are significantly eased. In no uncertain terms, for the UK to emerge from this crisis stronger, we need to encourage innovation. Driving an innovative economy, through tax incentives, effective regulation and well-targeted support schemes must be a fundamental component of the March 2021 Budget. We need to see action now, before it’s too late.”

Tomas Ulrichsen, Director of the new University Commercialisation and Innovation Policy Evidence Unit at the University of Cambridge, who led the study and authored the report said: “The new findings released today show that Covid-19 has had a hugely disruptive impact on universities and their ability to continue to contribute to innovation through the current health and economic crisis. We have seen the transformational effects of universities and businesses working together in finding practical and innovative solutions to wicked societal problems. This is why the findings of our study are so worrying. A strong, resilient and sustainable system of universities, research institutes and technology development organisations, working in close partnership with the private, charitable, and public sectors will be crucial to driving an innovation-led economic recovery and tackling other critical and urgent global challenges. Unless we proactively tackle the many challenges facing universities and their innovation partners to reverse these worrying trends, we risk not only hampering our economic recovery but also the UK’s longer-term competitiveness in key sectors.”