This is the first of a series of two NCUB blogs on the ongoing development of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). To read Dr Hamish McAlpine’s (Head of Data and Evidence for Knowledge Exchange, Research England) response, please visit: What do businesses think about the KEF? II.

The development of a Knowledge Exchange Framework creates an enticing vision: a coherent national picture of the relationship between universities and the many public, private and charitable institutions that exchange knowledge with the university sector.

Knowledge exchange with businesses is rightly at the centre of this vision. But the business community has a large and diverse population with an extraordinary range of relationships with universities. These relationships include graduate recruitment, professional development, joint ventures in research and innovation, sharing expensive equipment, short-term problem-solving and more. It is going to take time to discover and optimise a coherent picture.

Political rhetoric often suggests that business-university collaboration is a weak spot in the economy. Evidence from international comparisons paints a different picture, showing this country as one of the world’s best places for universities and businesses to work together. Data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness report put the UK consistently in the top 10 out of 160 countries for university-industry research collaborations and as high as 2nd in 2011 and 2012. The OECD puts the UK well down the international rankings for collaborations between universities and big businesses. But its 2017 data put the UK in first place for collaborations between universities and SMEs.

“It is going to take time to discover and optimise a coherent picture.”

This is a strong starting point but competitors are snapping at our heels. We need to keep improving our understanding of KE performance and keep finding ways to improve it. A first step is to better understand business perspectives on the KEF. To that end, NCUB organised a series of workshops with participants from businesses, universities and catapult centres. Participants included large firms from sectors such as aerospace, banking, defence, IT, management consulting and pharmaceuticals, most of whom had smaller firms as customers and suppliers. Catapults came from similar sectors as well as Offshore Renewable Energy, Satellite Applications and Transport.

Businesses told us that:

  • Benchmarking and league tables add little value to the choice of collaborators in universities. Easily accessible, high level data – analogous to TripAdvisor – appealed to some. Detailed data appealed to none.
  • Businesses seek individual experts with whom to collaborate. It is the performance of individual academics that most interests them. But institutions set the tone of collaboration and provide communities of individuals. So while both individual and institutional performance and reputation are of interest to businesses, it is the individual performance that is of greatest importance.
  • Knowledge Exchange covers a broad range of activities including sponsoring academic chairs, contributing to the running cost of facilities, sponsoring higher apprenticeships as well as ‘in kind’ contributions such as donations of equipment and staff time. Intellectual property and spinout companies are small components of business relationships with universities and should get correspondingly low emphasis in the KEF.
  • Strategic partnerships between businesses and universities are costly and time-consuming to develop but are valued highly by businesses. Such partnerships can cover some or all of: recruitment, use of research facilities, continuing professional development, short-term problem-solving and research collaboration.
  • Strategic partnerships are based on trust and familiarity rather than contractual agreements (although contracts may be in place). Large research universities with a broad span of excellence are particularly valuable as partners to business because partnerships can evolve over time to engage new research disciplines and combinations of discipline without the cost and risk of building new relationships with new university partners.
  • Similarly, the risk and transactional cost of working with a new partner can be much greater than that of continuing to work with an existing partner so expanding existing collaboration is often preferred to creating a new one.
  • Universities with large scale and high reputation, for example in the REF, are seen by some businesses as less risky places with which to forge partnerships. This is particularly evident if a business is considering the relocation of its research activities or a major investment in a research campus. Universities with strong local reputations are attractive partners for local firms.
  • Universities – large or small – in close proximity are more attractive to businesses for many types of collaboration, including apprenticeships, teacher training, medical training, engineering, short-term problem solving or access to facilities and equipment.

These are sobering views on the KEF. Of course these issues cannot all be addressed in the short term. But they provide a combination of visions, aspirations and challenges for the future development of the Framework.

To read Dr Hamish McAlpine’s (Head of Data and Evidence for Knowledge Exchange, Research England) response, please visit: What do businesses think about the KEF? II.