At a time of severe economic disruption resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown it led to, universities put significant efforts into supporting and maintaining their partnerships with their businesses and communities. The results from the latest Higher Education Business Community and Interaction (HE-BCI) Survey show that between August 2020 and the end of July 2021:

  • UK university income from interactions increased by 1.6%, compared to the previous year, totalling £5.16 billion; Increases were seen in activity income from consultancy contracts (up by 9%) and facilities and equipment related services (up by 21%);
  • 3,337 patents were granted, up by 8.8% from 2019-20;
  • 18,396 licenses were granted, up by 4.6% from 2019-20;
  • 194 newly registered spinouts, up by 11% from 2019-20.

Contrasted with the levels of economic disruption (annual GDP growth in 2020 shrank by 9.3% and is now estimated to have increased by 7.4% in 2021), this significant activity in HE-BCI between 2020 and 2021 evidences that research commercialisation activities were pivotal and prioritised during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Looking at the dynamics of these indicators over time, we observe that commercialisation activity has shown trends upward since 2018 (see Figure 1). Sustaining the growth in research commercialisation in the medium and long term will be essential to attract private R&D investment and unlock research and innovation opportunities.

Figure 1

Recovering levels of interactions is of paramount importance

However, as a direct result of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, the number of business interactions have seen declines. Data shows that the interactions with SME’s have been impacted more than interactions with large firms. The level of university engagement with SMEs dropped by 3.8% from 2019-20, whereas the number of interactions with large firms fell by 0.6%. These reductions in the number of interactions also translate into lower income levels (See Figure 2).

Figure 2

The results of the HE-BCI survey also show that the impacts of the pandemic on university business interactions have not been the same across all parts of the UK (see Figure 3). Universities in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, East of England, North East and the South West managed to increase or maintain their levels of business engagement. Conversely, universities in the North West, London and the South East saw reductions in their levels of engagement. This is an interesting trend, and something that we expect to explore further in this year’s State of the Relationship Report, which will be published in December.

Figure 3

The Government has hedged its bets on an innovation-driven, research-intensive economy steering future growth and prosperity. Business-university interaction is essential to this in many ways, ranging from talent development to research commercialisation to collaborative problem solving. The HEBCIS data shows that business-university interactions were critical during the pandemic, with commercialisation activities growing, but also adds to growing evidence that these collaborations were also not impervious to the impact of lockdown and disruption.

With interactions so central to future growth and success, we must pay close attention to these trends.