If there was ever a year that exemplified the expression – the only constant is change – perhaps 2019 lives up to that billing. Political norms are being re-written. Economic models are being upturned. Societal expectations are changing profoundly.

The new normal is one of disruptive change.

As we take our annual litmus test of the State of the Relationship – we see across our membership universities and businesses evolving to meet and get ahead of these changes. Throughout this report we see exemplars of our members pushing boundaries, challenging established practices and rising to the challenge to do things differently: meeting the challenges of tomorrow, not of yesterday.

Our network is committed to working collaboratively with others and maximising the opportunities this provides. Individually of course many could do much of this on their own. Our universities have a global reputation for excellence in both teaching and research, and our businesses are leading contributors of innovation, people and culture. But they recognise that a collective approach brings strengths and expertise from outside any one organisation, inside, realising true value and benefit. Our members recognise that they are stronger, together.

Our members recognise that they are stronger, together.

In an environment of such disruptive change, assuming that the answers and solutions can be found inside any one organisation limits both opportunity and success. Collaboration brings new insights, new perspectives, new approaches. And it brings these to both parties. We can and do measure the economic value of interactions between universities and both big business and SMEs. But the partnerships represented through this report demonstrate the mutual benefits of collaborative practices and the strength of working together which go beyond quantifiable returns.

Commitments made by the Government in the Industrial Strategy, especially around uplifting spend on research and development (R&D) in the UK to 2.4% as a percentage of GDP, sets out a direction of travel. It is a call to action to reimagine a future UK economy in which R&D is more deeply integrated. It needs to be driven by industry pull as much as by research push. And this activity should not simply be the preserve of the already research-intensive organisations but one which must pervade all business. From SMEs to international corporates, devising, developing and implementing new ideas and solutions must become the norm, not the exception. As we set out in this report – the UK has the opportunity to become a genuine ideas economy.

Nurturing and developing that ideas economy is in the DNA of all of our universities.

Nurturing and developing that ideas economy is in the DNA of all of our universities. From cutting-edge research and discoveries through to the training and development of crucial higher-level skills – our universities are critical partners in realising the ambition of an ideas economy. Universities work seamlessly and don’t delineate between or separate out their activities in research, teaching and enterprise. It is all part of what they do and why they make for ideal partners to the businesses who take an equally holistic view of developing and implementing new ideas.

But the fabric of what we take to be a university is changing. Proposed variations in tuition fees, regulatory changes opening up “the market” to new providers, new education routes being driven by Levy contributions.

Universities are not immune to challenge. The world around them is profoundly changing and with it they must adapt and evolve to stay relevant. Universities must not only recognise the changes and know how they will respond and develop, but also acknowledge how the partnerships they forge with others are the powerful calling card for the value and worth they offer. And in many ways, they help to insulate them from some of the most pressing challenges.

It is a question of shifting the narrative away from the critics’ favourite of self-interest, to a demonstration of breadth and depth of value. Universities offer benefits locally, nationally and internationally through partnerships and collaborations with others. They must not be afraid to levy their voices as employers, as well as educators. As knowledge-banks and experts in business-critical issues. As innovators and trendsetters as we move into a future UK. To use industrial terminology, universities must articulate the critical role they play in the supply and value chains of their partner organisations.

The opportunity resides in being an integral, indispensable, part of the ecosystem and demonstrating a collective strength.

The opportunity resides in being an integral, indispensable, part of the ecosystem and demonstrating a collective strength. But for all the positives we know and see of collaborative, partnership working, the uncertainty caused by disruptive changes makes it difficult to get ahead of the curve. Perhaps one of the consequences of the Brexit impasse has been the holding back of decisions; certainly on the business side but to an extent with universities as well. And of course, why wouldn’t it have that impact?

Our university and business members are global, not national. And so their partnerships are global and their working culture is global. Asking them to think nationally is not simple, nor fair. Similarly, we cannot expect our nation’s major employers to launch new talent strategies when they do not know how their recruitment and retention might be affected by changes to migration laws. And what of the partnerships which rely so heavily on funds from Horizon 2020, the European Regional Development Fund and other EU programmes? You’ll see many ERDF logos scattered across the coming pages, but without knowing if that will continue, or how a proposed Shared Prosperity Fund might replace it, then how can they move forwards?

With all the machinations in Westminster over Brexit, there has not been a ground swell of detail from the Government in a number of policy areas. Some of this impasse will eventually lift but the absence of an active partner in Government is keenly felt. It leaves key national institutions such as businesses and universities to fill the void and take the lead. And so they have.

Picking up this mantle is perhaps best seen locally. Collaborations between our industry and university partners are helping to shape local decision making. From capital investments in new facilities through to shared approaches to skills pipelines – partnerships are recognising the role that collaborative practices can bring, and the nascent Local Industrial Strategies bear the hallmarks of this. And with this comes a significant rise in the involvement of SMEs. Year on year we hear greater quantity and quality of interactions with SMEs who are finding the capacity to work with local universities and bigger businesses, recognising the importance of such partnerships.

We’re doing our bit to support this. With konfer, our online innovation brokerage tool, and Placer, our work experience app, businesses – small and large – have easier, streamlined access to knowledge, expertise, funding, equipment and willing partners in the universities open for collaboration.

Collaboration operates across skills as much as it does across research and innovation. And the two are not mutually exclusive in the way policy offerings often suggest. Meeting ambitious targets, being an innovative knowledge-based economy, raising productivity; these challenges all require a talented and skilled workforce.

Embedding the skills needed for future jobs, without knowing exactly what they will be, is one of the greatest challenges that we face. But it is a challenge that businesses and universities are rising to meet. From rethinking technical education, embedding it into different subjects and levels; to developing new pathways at Level 3 which recognise the importance of flexible, steady learning; to blazing trails of new teaching models and a collaborative, employer-led apprenticeship system.

We are partners in our delivery of talent and skills for a brighter tomorrow.

These adaptations all mark an evolution in our understanding of ‘the learner’, which will continue to grow in the coming years. No longer can we see higher education as the beginning of an adult journey which occurs at the age of 18. And as we see recommendations emerge for sector-altering reform, we must take support from the security of our relationships. University-business, provider or employer, highereducation and industry – whichever terms are used should be read correctly. As a link, not an opposition.

We are partners in our delivery of talent and skills for a brighter tomorrow. As an organisation we are solely dedicated to furthering the quantity and quality of these partnerships. As we enter a new chapter in the organisation’s story, working hand-in-hand with our network of 130 universities and businesses, with the support of our funders, and of our colleagues across the UK Government and the devolved administrations, our mission is renewed afresh. To build a more prosperous, more innovative and more inclusive UK economy. Because we are stronger together.

This article first appeared in the 2019 State of the Relationship report published 19 June 2019.