THE GROWING IMPORTANCE OF UNIVERSITY-INDUSTRY LINKS
One of the earliest joint academic papers I wrote was with my good friend and colleague Professor Magnus Klofsten on the role of his university in boosting and strengthening the innovation potential of a region in Sweden.
“Universities and local economic development: The case of Linköping” was one of the first specific case studies of how high education institutions could support economic development by generating new and applied knowledge that could be used by indigenous high‐technology industry.
Since then, the so-called third mission of universities, in addition to research and teaching, has become accepted by policymakers industrialists and academics as being an integral part of the role of higher education.
Indeed, to promote greater interaction between academia and industry, the UK Government has established a specific independent and not-for-profit organisation - the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) - to promote, develop and support university-business collaboration across the UK.
Their latest “State of the relationship” report gives a fascinating insight into how our academic institutions are working harder than ever to develop relationships with business across the UK. More relevantly, there are some important findings which show the changes and long-term trends in university-business collaboration across the UK.
The first, perhaps, surprising result is that whilst university interactions with SMEs decreased by 13 per cent between 2016 and 2017, the average value of interactions increased by 22 per cent.
Interestingly, the opposite is true with regard to larger businesses, with a slight growth in the number of interactions but a fall in the average deal size. In addition, universities issued 39 per cent more licenses in 2017 as compared to 2016 but their value fell significantly from £126 million to £102 million, a decline of 22 per cent over this period.
In terms of commercialisation, universities are clearly playing a more important role in the development of a strong technology-based ecosystem, registering an increase of over 16 per cent in granted patents from the previous year. In addition, the number of spin-off companies that have survived for at least three years grew to 1072 (a growth of 4 per cent from 2016) which shows that entrepreneurial activity from higher education is finally becoming sustainable in the market place.
If we examine the overall income from knowledge exchange activities between academia and industry (excluding the funds received from licensing), this fell by 1 per cent which continues a worrying trend in recent years (although nearly a billion pounds is still generated from industry annually).
What is more of a concern, given that this study took place during the period directly after the Brexit vote, is that there was increased dependency on overseas funding. This, of course, may dry up when we leave Europe with serious consequences for research and innovation in UK higher education if the right mechanisms are not put in place to sustain and grow this.
Another worrying trend given that one of the key roles of universities is to supply trained graduates for the workplace is that the share of graduates employed in innovative sectors fell slightly in 2017, continuing a pattern seen in previous years although there was an increase of nearly 3 per cent in the overall numbers of graduates employed.
And where do Welsh universities stand in comparison to the other parts of the UK when it comes to knowledge exchange between academia and industry?
Unfortunately, the evidence not only shows that there is still much to be done to not only with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland across a number of indicators but that there is an overall decrease in performance as compared to previous years.
For example, despite having a range of European funded programmes to link small firms with universities, Wales has only 1.4 per cent of the number of UK university deals with SMEs and this declined by 17 per cent in 2017 (as compared to the previous four year average) although the value of each deal was far higher than for the other parts of the UK. In contrast, whilst Wales has 3.4 per cent of higher education deals with larger businesses, the average value of the income is only 45 per cent of that found in English universities.
In terms of commercialisation, whilst Wales has five per cent of all licences granted by UK universities, it has only two per cent of the income from these licences and only 1.4 per cent of all patents granted to UK universities derive from Welsh institutions.
However, we do have a better record on entrepreneurial activity from universities with nearly ten per cent of all academic spinouts originating in Wales which is definitely something to build on for the future.
Therefore, in an increasingly competitive global economy, access to knowledge will be one of the key influencers on industrial growth and because of this, universities will have a more important role going forward. Certainly, the trends for both Wales and the UK show a mixed picture in interaction between academia and industry and suggests that more needs to be done by policymakers to ensure that we maximise the impact of higher education on our economy and society.