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If we are to create a successful knowledge-based economy, then the transfer of knowledge from universities to businesses will be a vital part of that transformation over the next decade.

In particular, understanding what actually happens in the interactions between higher education and industry and improving the way both partners work together will be key in maximising the potential to create and support the industries of the future.

That is why new research published this week by the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge and the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) should be vital reading for Vice Chancellors, chief executives and policymakers.

It is an impressive study and this column will not be able to do justice to all of the results that have emerged from a survey of nearly 4,000 businesses examining how they interact with universities in the UK.

However, some of the higher level findings show that universities and businesses do work together to solve a range of different problems but not all of these are related to technology as would be expected. 

For example, whilst 60% of businesses interact for technology-based innovation-related factors, just over half interact with universities because of business operations and management factors. This suggests that business schools are not only vital parts of any local innovation ecosystem but can play an increasing role in improving the productivity of businesses within regions.

And when they do interact with industry, universities are good at it with 80% of businesses stating that these interactions met or exceeded their expectations. However, there is still much to do to ensure there is greater interaction with smaller firms. For example, 38% of large businesses are engaged in commercialisation activities with universities as compared to only 18% of microbusinesses employing less than ten people (although the gap has closed during the last 12 years).

When asked about how to improve interactions with universities, over half of businesses stated that a lack of resources within their own organisations was an important barrier whilst 46% said that identifying a suitable partner is also difficult.  

In addition, a lack of information on the opportunities of partnering with a university was cited as the most important barrier to those firms having no interactions with the higher education sector.

Given these findings, it is not surprising that the report’s authors conclude that there needs to be a greater understanding of why businesses are stating they do not have the resource necessary to interact with universities given the productivity and innovation gains that can occur from such interactions. For example, is this due to a lack of funding for such interactions or ensuring that there is sufficient staff time for developing closer relationships with academics? 

Within Wales, answering these questions are important given that all of the city and growth deals are providing tens of millions of pounds to support universities in developing key parts of the regional economies. Yet, if the focus is predominantly on building capacity within universities and not local businesses, then the full benefits of this public funding may not be realised.

Also, the fact that the university sector is difficult for businesses to navigate in order to find what support and expertise is available is disappointing. The higher education sector is always quick to point out the impact it has on local economies but as this report shows, the business community is struggling to understand what exactly is on offer in terms of the expertise and facilities within higher education.

As there is currently no portal here in Wales that provides and up-to-date directory of the knowledge available to the business community, it would be an easy step for Welsh universities to come together to provide this as a vital online information resource for local industry as well as highlighting the strengths of each university of potential inward investors looking to relocate to Wales. 

Yes, the Welsh Government has an “Expertise Wales” portal which claims to be the online resource for driving collaboration and innovation in Wales but this provides no information at all on the expertise available within the universities in Wales.

But perhaps the most important element in improving greater interactions between industry and academia remains that of understanding each other’s cultures. There are a range of ways to do this but greater mobility of talent between the two different worlds would be a step in the right direction.

A quarter of a century ago, I led the first ever pan-European academic study into university-industry links and the main conclusions then, as it is now with the current study is that success is a result of an acknowledgement of mutually beneficial activities for all partners and awareness of the economy in which they participate. 

Indeed, as the NCUB report suggests, it is important to ensure that interactions with companies are undertaken with shared expectations and opportunities exist to capture feedback to support improved levels of satisfaction and increased interaction.

In other words, academics and businesspeople need to get a better understanding of how the other partner works and to proactively look to improve the way they engage together. 

Here in Wales, that should be a priority for the business community and the university sector  because if we get this right, then not only will that benefits each partner but, more importantly, will provide a significant boost to the Welsh economy as a whole. 

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