There is potential for more businesses and universities to work with each other. It is here that policy plays an important role, providing not only incentives, but information and inspiration too.

Image Credit: Les Roches

Policy makers are famously fond of analogies. Universities have been likened to both Anchors (in the 2012 Wilson Review) and Arrows (in the recent Witty Review). At first these appear quite opposed to each other – one imagines an imposing building drawing all who surround it into its influence, or a lithe institution soaring into space. But they are both making the same point about universities and business – that each are stronger when they work together, and the benefits are wide reaching when they do.

To demonstrate, let’s take an imaginary university – The University of X – who, amongst other things, is a leader in technology Y. A nearby small business (Business Z) is growing fast, but growing much further will require testing some new materials using technology Y. As part of their new European funding strategy (which decides how to spend some of the eight billion pounds allocated to the UK) the Local Enterprise Partnership responsible for growth in the area gives Business Z an Innovation Voucher: £5,000 that can be spent on research and development at the University of X. This kick starts a fruitful and mutually beneficial relationship – allowing Business Z to break through their technological barrier with little risk, and the University of X to implement and refine their research in a ‘real world’ setting.

Yet this is really just the start of their collaboration. Before long, the students studying technology Y at the University of X are completing work experience at Business Z, boosting their employability and skills whilst providing fresh thinking and insight for Business Z. University X recognises the great benefits of working with business, and sets up a hub or a science park to encourage more partnerships and create a safe space for students to set up their own business. Business Z, now exporting worldwide, is a model for other local businesses, and a major employer and innovator in the area.

It’s a familiar story that I am fortunate to have encountered many times at Universities UK, witnessing universities and businesses working together and developing jobs, ideas and products. There is some truly excellent work taking place. This process is replicated throughout the country, irrespective of location or industry, across the full range of universities and businesses. When these stories are combined the result is economic growth, pushing the digits of GDP statistics upwards.

There is potential, however, for more businesses and universities to work with each other. It is here that policy plays an important role, providing not only incentives, but information and inspiration too. Networks and events facilitate the sharing of best practice and case studies. Working closely with government can lead to welcome developments, such as higher level skills activities (paid internships for example) being eligible for the next round of the European Social Fund – great news for both universities and businesses. And in April Universities UK will host a conference on the contribution of universities to local economic growth, supported by NCUB.

Whether universities are Anchors or Arrows – or both – the message is that everybody gains when businesses and universities work closer together.

James Ransom is a Policy Researcher at Universities UK working on local economic growth.

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