The changing state of Knowledge Exchange: university industry interactions in an age of austerity

The changing state of Knowledge Exchange: university industry interactions in an age of austerity

In 2009 the Centre for Business Research (CBR) at the University of Cambridge completed the first ever national survey of all academics at all UK universities in all disciplines explicitly designed to map the pattern of external relationships with public private and third sector organisations (Hughes and Kitson 2012¹).

Over 22,000 academics responded. At the same time the CBR carried out a national survey representative of all industries with an achieved sample of over 2500 businesses examining these relationships from a private business sector point of view (Hughes and Kitson 2013²). Both of these surveys covered a three-year period prior to the survey date.

These unique national surveys enabled a fuller and more robust picture to be drawn of external university links in the UK than had previously been possible. The findings challenged a number of critical views of those relationships which had argued that UK universities lacked strong connections with the private sector and exhibited weak commercialisation activity.

The explicit coverage in the academic survey of disciplines beyond science technology and engineering meant that in addition to revealing substantial commercialisation activity a much wider range of academic industry interactions were taking place.

In terms of commercialisation interactions around 7% of all academics reported that they had been involved in patenting activity in the three years 2005-8. Over 3% had formed a spin out company. The latter when grossed up to the academic population as a whole meant that over 4,000 new businesses had been formed by academics (mainly in the engineering and materials sciences and biology and chemistry fields), far higher than reported in public data based on aggregated reporting at university level.

However, neither in those disciplines nor in the others (arts and humanities, the social sciences, health sciences and physics and mathematics), were these commercialisation activities reported by academics as either the most frequent or important of their connecting relationships with external organisations.

Moreover academics regarded their relationships with external organisations as having positive effects on the nature and range of their research and on their teaching. Finally, relationships were most frequently constrained not by differences of culture or problems of establishing intellectual property contracts, but rather by constraints arising from pressures of time, and the lack of resources or administrative capacity to manage relationships. The parallel business survey produced very similar conclusions in terms of types of interactions and their importance and in terms of constraints. It also revealed that interactions went far beyond the pursuit of technical knowledge for innovation purposes with academics in the science and engineering disciplines, to encompass a wide range of business functions from human relationship management through to finance, marketing and logistics which involved links, for example, with social sciences and mathematics.

Despite the picture of extensive and positive engagement emerging from these national surveys, public policy interest in University external relationships has continued unabated. There have been multiple reports of committees tasked with examining the constraints limiting these relationships and examining possible policies to improve or increase them and their impact. Public funding for research has incentivised the pursuit of impact. Thus the UK Research Councils have earmarked substantial funds to support academics pursuing impact focused relationships with external bodies. At the same time, the Research Excellence Framework 2014, which was used by the university funding bodies for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to allocate research funding across universities, included for the first time an evaluation of impact case studies.

It is interesting, therefore, to ask what has happened to the pattern of University relationships with external organisations in the period since 2008/9. It is, fortunately, possible to make just such a comparison because the whole UK academic population has been re-surveyed in 2015 by a research team consisting of the original CBR project leaders and academics from Imperial College Business School and the School of Management of the University of Bath (Hughes et al 2016³). This 2015 survey, once again, covered all academics in all disciplines in all UK universities with an achieved ample of over 18,000 responses. This short essay reports on some of the key conclusions which emerge from this comparison.

Before presenting the results it is important to bear in mind a number of central issues which arise in attempting to compare patterns of university-industry relationships and external relationships more generally over time.

The first issue which arises is that an attempt must be made to control for any changes which have occurred in the composition of the academic community over time and, in particular, to ensure that the groups of academics whose characteristics are examined in the two surveys are as comparable as possible. Two ways of addressing this issue have been used by the 2015 team. The first consists of a comparison between two samples of academics, one from each period, which are matched in terms of institution, academic seniority, age, gender, and discipline. This produces a matched sample of over 10,000 academics to be used and provides robust representative results. A second approach consists of identifying individuals who responded to both the 2008/9 and 2015 surveys to form a panel of respondents. This produces a panel dataset which is very helpful in identifying changes in behaviour at the individual academic level and which naturally controls for the characteristics of those individuals (Lawson et al 2016⁴). It is less useful however as a measure of changes in the academic population generally over time than the matched sample comparison. This is because the individuals in the panel have changed in terms of age and possibly also in terms of the seniority of their academic positions and possibly their institutions, each of which is likely to affect their pattern and intensity of external relationships. In this essay a comparison based on the matched sample is used to compare changes over time.


This is then followed by a brief look at the panel dataset to draw some conclusions about why academics begin and stop external engagement and some policy implications which follow.

The second issue in making comparisons over time is more complex to deal with. It relates to the impact of changing macro-economic circumstances. It is rarely discussed in the long running debate over whether or not university industry engagement activity in the UK is rising or falling. The first survey took place at the end of a period of sustained growth which culminated in the global financial crisis of 2008. This led to a period of sustained macro-economic contraction, while public policy in the UK, and elsewhere, aimed at restoring financial stability through reductions in public sector expenditure. The aftermath of the financial crisis was in the UK, as elsewhere, associated with substantial reductions in private sector R&D expenditures and in investment and in the growth of output, and with changes in corporate investment strategy to cope with radically changing environments (Fillipetti and Archibugi 2011⁵). Public funding for research also fell in real terms compensated to some extent by the ability of UK researchers to attract overseas funding especially from the EU.

This means that in comparing the responses of academics to questions about their external relationships it is essential to bear in mind the very different circumstances in which the external organisations are operating. The frequency and extent of academic external interactions are the result of both a supply and demand effect. This is particularly important in the case of interactions and activities which are more strictly tied to external market conditions. Restrictions arising from access to finance in the constrained financial market and circumstances following the global crash are likely to reduce the extent to which academics may either wish or be able to develop new start-up or spin out activities. Equally the willingness of businesses to fund research which is less close to the market may also be constrained. Businesses may therefore switch their patterns of relationship away from research funding of a more basic kind towards problem-solving or contract based research. Finally, public and private sector retrenchment may well have led to a fall in the demand for consultancy services. These powerful supply and demand-side effects may, notwithstanding increased policy support for impact -related activities, be associated with lower commercialisation activities in the second survey compared to the first. Any attempts at headline comparisons of changes in the raw comparative data over time which neglects these contextual changes are likely to be misleading.

Exhibit 1 provides an overview of the wide range of external interactions reported by academics in 2015. It relates to such activities in the three-year period prior to the survey. The results for 2015 confirm the results of the earlier survey of 2008/9. There is a very wide range of activity reported by UK academics. People based, problem-solving and community-based activities are very widely reported. Their frequency far outweighs the more narrowly defined set of interactions associated with commercialisation.

Exhibits 2 and 3 use the matched sample data to compare changes over time. As might be expected in view of the changing economic context discussed above Exhibit 2 commercialisation activities fell. This was particularly true of the formation of consultancies. Even so 6% of academics reported taking out a patent and 4% reported having licensed research outputs. Exhibit 3 reports on the incidence of all other engagement activities and shows a remarkable persistence over time both in the relative frequency of different types of activity and in the absolute frequency with which they occurred. In the case of community-based activities there was a small increase.

This picture of sustained engagement activities in the face of difficult background circumstances may reflect the increased incentives provided by policy for engagement activities. It also reflects the underlying importance attached to external engagement activities by academics. They are seen as having a positive impact on teaching and on research. In relation to research the bars in Exhibit 4 provide a clear picture of the frequency with which academics cite motivations connected with; gaining insight into research; furthering their institutions outreach mission; keeping up-to-date with external research; and testing practical applications.

The triangles also show the importance they attach to these motivations. A comparison of the 2015 patterns of motivation with those of 2008/9 is shown in Exhibit 5. The stability in the pattern of motivation over time is clear. The frequency with which academics cite furthering their institution’s outreach mission is particularly noticeable in view of policy encouragement to increase university research related impact. So also as is the decline in academics citing personal income as a motivating force. When an analysis is carried out of the impact that external activities have on research over 70% of academics in both periods state that it has led to new contacts or new insights into their research. Around 60% cite impacts related to improved reputation and the attraction of new research grants.

Although there is considerable stability in the frequency of, and motivations for, external engagement the Panel dataset comparison shows there is, nonetheless, some movement of individual academics out of engagement and that it is balanced by those entering into it (Lawson et. al. 2016⁴). This movement is, however, very small compared to the persistence of engagement involvement by a core of academics who maintain engagement activities over long periods of time.


The persistent involvement of a large core of academics which the panel data reveals shows that external engagement is firmly rooted in academic practice across the UK University sector. Past engagement leads to future engagement in what is a learned experience. Equally some persistent non-engagement suggests a degree of specialization within the academic community with some academics more focussed on research per se than its potential or actual application.


These findings have important implications for policy towards impact. First, supporting academics with existing engagement commitments may be a more fruitful way of raising impact than trying to increase engagement amongst academics with a different set of motivations who play a critical part in sustaining a diverse range of academic activities. Deepening may be preferable to widening engagement and the focus should be on quality not quantity. Second, the extent of persistent commitment to and involvement in collaborative activities suggests that early exposure to engagement and its benefits in terms of teaching and research should be supported.



This will be difficult so long as the early stages of an academic career in the UK remain dominated by research and journal publication. Respondents to both the surveys indicate the overwhelming belief amongst academics in all universities in the primacy of these compared to success in external engagement. It may be that the answer to this question is to be sought in more diversity across institutions in overall mission and hence in their career and promotion trajectories, and less emphasis on a one-size fits all funding allocation process based primarily on research excellence.


¹ Hughes, A. and Kitson, M. (2012), ‘Pathways to Impact and the Strategic Role of Universities: new evidence on the breadth and depth of university knowledge exchange in the UK and the factors
constraining its development’, Cambridge Journal of Economics Special Issue, 36: 712-750.
² Hughes, A. and Kitson, M. (2013) Connecting with the Ivory Tower: Business Perspectives on Knowledge Exchange in the UK. A Report from the Centre for Business Research, the UK~IRC and NCUB.
³ Hughes, A., Lawson, C., Salter, A., Kitson, M., with Bullock, A., and Hughes, R.B. (2016) ‘ The Changing State of Knowledge Exchange: UK Academic Interactions with External Organisations 2005-2015’
National Centre for universities and business (NCUB) London.
⁴ Lawson, C., Hughes, A., Salter, A., Kitson, M., with Bullock, A., and Hughes, R.B. (2016) ‘Knowledge Exchange in UK universities: Results from a Panel of Academics 2005- 2015’ National Centre for universities and business (NCUB) London.
⁵ Filippetti, A. and Archibugi, D. (2011) ‘Innovation in times of crisis: national systems of innovation, structure and demand.’ Research Policy 40 (2): 179-192.

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