At no other time in memory has it been more apparent the important role that universities play in driving the nation’s economic recovery. The fate of the nation has literally rested on the successful development of a Covid-19 vaccine built on decades of fundamental research and invented and developed by partners- Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

And while Covid-19 related research has enjoyed a boost in both funding and interest from both government and the public alike, other parts of the research and innovation system, universities included, have been directly impacted by its consequences.

That is why the new strategic partnership between the University Commercialisation and Innovation (UCI) Policy Evidence Unit based at the University of Cambridge and NCUB, which brings together expertise and insight in ways neither partners could do alone, is critical to building up group understanding of the real issues at stake.

The Government’s R&D Roadmap, published in July last year and subsequent Spending Review in November 2020 reiterated a promise to put research and innovation at the heart of their approaches to economic recovery and reinvention from Covid-19.  A strong and resilient system of universities, research institutes and technology development organisations, working in close partnership with the private and public sectors will be crucial to driving an innovation-led economic recovery.

However, while there is increasing evidence that the pandemic has caused significant disruption to business R&D and innovation activities, we know much less about how it is affecting universities and their ability to contribute to innovation through the crisis.

In this context and recognising lack of evidence of the impact of Covid-19 on university- business collaborations, a survey was undertaken to understand the full extent of the pandemic’s effect on university R&D and innovation. The survey was authored and developed by Tomas Coates Ulrichsen at the UCI Policy Evidence Unit based at the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with NCUB.

Aimed at senior leaders and managers of UK universities, the survey attracted 61 responses from universities reporting how the Covid-19 crisis affected their ability to contribute to innovation through their innovation-focused partnerships, commercialisation and other knowledge exchange activities. The survey also looked at new ways of working developed during the pandemic, as well as expectations for the future regarding changes to the level activity and funding.

Key findings

The findings show that during the first national lockdown:

  • There were significant delays and disruption to projects: 88% of UK universities cited that a ‘significant proportion’ (more than 10%) of their innovation projects had been delayed and 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.
  • More universities reported that their innovation focused activities with SMEs had been adversely affected during the pandemic.
  • There are clear links between the scale of disruption or change in specific sectors and the changes in levels of innovation activities with universities. For example, the biggest declines in university-business activities were in aerospace and automotive manufacturing but pharmaceutical and medical biotechnology saw increased activity.

The results also revealed the breadth of ways universities contribute both to the innovation process as well as the lessons learned from adapting to new ways of working as a results of the pandemic:

  • Strategic partners: Activities with strategic partners tended to fare better during the crisis, and the results emphasised the strength of building long term strategic partnerships. Respondents were more likely to increase activities with strategic partners during the lockdown and are expecting to see growth in the level of activities with strategic partners in March 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels.
  • Post pandemic: On average, a moderate bounce back was expected in innovation-focused activities with external partners from September 2020 onwards. However, this wasn’t expected to make up for the decreases experienced during the lockdown.
  • Lessons learned: Respondents reported improved efficiency and effectiveness and new opportunities emerging during the lockdown, with much of this linked to the move to  online activities.

Looking forward: the challenges ahead

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on universities, with many universities having to rapidly change their operations and face potentially significant drops in private R&D investment.

Even pre-pandemic, the question of the sustainability of university research funding was in question and this has rightly gained prominence since the pandemic, possibly even exacerbated since the pandemic began.

It is also worrying to see trends which may affect highly specialised universities or universities lacking a varied portfolio of partners in different industries. The correlation between sector-specific impacts and the disruption to innovation-focused activity with universities may impact universities at different times. As industry begins to experience more fallout from the pandemic, universities may also start to feel impacts to their partnership projects with those firms. Conversely, those with a large number of strategic partnerships with industries that have experienced no decline may do better in the longer term. It will be important to continue to monitor industry-specific impacts and how these correlate to changes to university partnerships.

Although the disruptions to projects are worrying, there is some encouragement in knowing that university business partners have looked to delay or postpone projects, rather than outright cancel their projects with universities. However, it does raise important questions about how long the reduced or postponed activities can be sustained if business’ finances do not improve. Government funding programmes that help companies stay afloat and encourage them to invest in R&D will help maintain partnerships at a time when the whole ecosystem needs to be supported. This could include extending Covid-19 support schemes and postponing repayment of loans until lockdown restrictions are significantly eased.

Looking forward and with a likely global decline in business R&D investment, and the sustainability of university research already under pressure pre-pandemic, we need to encourage innovation for the UK to emerge from this crisis stronger. In order to meet the challenges identified in the report, we need a healthy university and business R&D system that is able to partner to invest in research and create value through innovation.

Looking ahead to the March Budget announcements, we hope that innovation-driven partnerships will continue to be at the heart of the nation’s response to drive economic recovery and renewal at both the national and local level.