As the skills gap widens, the 2.4% R&D target looms and the UK’s funding future seems evermore uncertain, university-business collaboration could not be more important. The past couple of years have been relatively quiet on the collaboration policy front, a stark contrast from half a decade ago. So, how has the current landscape formed in the past five years, and how will it continue to evolve?

When Ann Dowling published her eponymous report in 2015, there was an amassed wealth (or excess depending on your point of view) of recommendations for better and more successful university-business collaborations. Sir Andrew Witty, Sir Tim Wilson and Lord Heseltine – to name but a few – all contributed to a staggering total of 297 recommendations, as polled by NCUB. When we took a closer look at the breakdown of these recommendations, we found that only nine are directed at business. Despite the huge amount of effort and volume of outputs, few reports fully consider the motivations of businesses themselves and how these feed into the collaboration topography. Hurdles are often flagged but how much analysis of underlying themes has been produced post 2015?

Hurdles are often flagged but how much analysis of underlying themes has been produced post 2015?

The Dowling review identifies challenges facing both business and HE in collaboration, highlighting the complexity of the innovation system, one that creates new initiatives rather than building on existing ones and needs organisational improvement. It calls for better use of the current resources to enable successful partnerships and a more effective brokerage system. Since this time, several initiatives have emerged in an attempt to tackle these issues, most noticeably the formation of UKRI, but also the creation of konfer. Born out of a joint effort between NCUB and UKRI, this platform has aimed to fill this brokerage gap, and currently features over £1 billion in funding opportunities for innovation across all sectors.

In the same year as Dowling, ‘Best of Both Worlds’ was published, the CBI guide to business-university collaboration. The how-to style document encourages research and innovation through business and HE partnership. Whilst emphasising the importance of business investment in research it provides a useful run down of current routes into collaboration, case studies and the inherent benefits and risk. But again, further value could be derived from a closer examination of actual business needs rather than just the potential benefits. Interestingly, as mentioned in Dowling, the guide highlights the existence of an incredible amount of resources to facilitate cross sector progress, such as KTPs, Catapults and Innovation Vouchers, that businesses should exploit to the full. The CBI guide also picks up on another important theme of Dowling’s, cultural differences between universities and businesses as one of the major barriers to successful alliances, specifically around Intellectual Property. The ever useful Lambert Toolkit and the ongoing work of the IPO go some way to addressing this issue, but the question of IP continues to rear its ambiguous head.

Fast forward a couple of years and the narrative nuance has changed from ‘collaboration’ to ‘knowledge exchange’.

Fast forward a couple of years and the narrative nuance has changed from ‘collaboration’ to ‘knowledge exchange’. The KEF is announced, and the industry continues to await the outcome of the consultation. In this environment in 2018, the Royal Academy of Engineering released its investigation into increasing R&D investment. It highlights university collaboration as an existing strength in the UK but underlines problems surrounding the gap of understanding between industry and academia, as well as, again, the challenges presented by IP. Around this time The Foundation for Science and Technology also held an event on the importance of business R&D for reaching the 2.4%, suggesting incentive schemes relating to innovation metrics as a way forward to encouraging engagement from business.

The Dowling report was the last review of the university-business collaboration relationship to consider the full scope of business, university and government interests. Since 2015 many of the outputs produced have addressed solely business or academia, as a more focused approach is needed. Whilst five years earlier we had reached an apex of recommendations, we now appear to be tipping in the opposite direction, developing an appetite for less but more specialised advice. As the field of KE and R&D shifts once more, a closer analysis of stakeholder needs, as opposed to a pure focus on targets could help inform more intelligent future recommendations for business, bridge the cultural gap between industry and HEIs and achieve the 2.4% target.