On Friday 3 December the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) published their State of the Relationship 2021 report and held an online launch event. This think piece reflects on the report and event, as well as situating them within the context of the relationships between universities and businesses in Yorkshire.
Context from the UK Government
Collaboration between universities and business has a key role to play in fostering innovation and developing talent, which is needed to meet the government’s ambition for the UK to lead on science and innovation. George Freeman, the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, spoke at the State of the Relationship launch event and stressed that there is agreement from the whole cabinet that science, technology and innovation need to be at the heart of the economy. Freeman said that there is a cross government commitment to the UK becoming a “science superpower” and an “innovation nation”, as backed up by announcement of increases in public R&D funding to £20bn by 2024-25 and creating conditions for further private investment. Freeman also emphasised that the government is committed to spreading funding to support clusters all around the country and recognising that a wide range of universities are at the forefront of innovation, technology and business engagement.
The data in the new NCUB report primarily covers the period from July 2019 – August 2020. Importantly, this is the first data covering the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the period does also combine data from immediately before the pandemic as well. One of the key findings of the State of the Relationship report was that interactions between universities and businesses fell by nearly a third (31%) in 2019-20, down from a record high in the previous reporting period. Significantly, this fall in interactions was disproportionately split by company size, with interactions with large businesses falling only 2%, while interactions with Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) fell by 39%. It was highlighted that while the pandemic will have had a large impact on these figures, other issues, such as Brexit, had contributed towards decreased SME engagement. Despite the fall in total interactions, commercialisation metrics continued to strengthen, with a 20% increase in licences granted, a 9% increase in patents and the continuing importance of spin-outs.
Three key collaboration trends were identified in the report:
- “The rise and rise of the innovation district”
- “Spin-ins spin out new opportunities”
- “Building the collaborative workforce of the future”
The growing interest in innovation places highlights the continuing importance of geographical proximity, even with moves towards online working. Nexus at the University of Leeds was spotlighted in the NCUB report as part of “a new generation of innovation places”, with the rise of innovation districts or quarters within cities and increasing focus on using innovation clusters to address broader societal issues. Dr Martin Stow, Nexus Director, contributed to the report by highlighting the importance of innovation ecosystems as “a catalyst for creativity, collaboration and community”, creating economic and social benefits at all geographic levels from local to global. Benefits of innovation places include providing education and employment into highly skilled jobs, which supports social mobility and inclusive growth. Stow emphasised the role universities can play as a catalyst by bringing together knowledge, talent, facilities, and finance. Nexus specifically plays a role in creating an environment that addresses business needs and fosters connections between a diverse community, supporting innovative solutions, high growth businesses and impactful products and services. There are a range of other examples of innovation hubs across the region, including the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC) in Huddersfield and the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District (AMID) in Sheffield, which has secured an additional £763,000 in government funding for its further development.
These innovation places directly support spin-outs and the growing importance of spin-ins. The NCUB report describes spin-ins as “companies that benefit from university inventions, research, technologies and/or facilities, often in return for an equity stake”. Centres like Nexus and 3M BIC provide a clear access point to help businesses tap into university resources and so encourage spin-ins. Nexus provides a base for a diverse range of companies including global high growth businesses, providing support around: community and networks; research and innovation; skills and talent; workspace and facilities. 3M BIC also supports a range of businesses, focusing on SMEs, and help is centred around access to knowledge, support, technology and facilities. The University of Hull’s Aura Innovation Centre focuses on helping businesses with carbon reducing initiatives through support with funding, facilities, skills and knowledge.
Building a collaborative workforce is another important area for universities and businesses to work together, and it was highlighted that there is a need for better flows between academia, training and industry. Universities have a key role in developing talent and helping to address skills gaps, but there is also a need for talent pathways through academia and industry to flow in both directions to allow the effective exchange of knowledge and skills. This is an area where Yorkshire Universities aims to support existing and emerging initiatives in the region, including convening a specific task and finish group on the graduate labour market, bringing together representatives from universities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and businesses around the topic of graduate employment.
There are many existing initiatives across Yorkshire that facilitate collaboration around employment and ongoing training opportunities. There are partnerships, between universities, local authorities and businesses, that aim to support graduates to find work in their city of study and help address skills gaps. Examples include #InLeeds and the RISE programme in Sheffield, which specifically connects to SMEs. There are also initiatives to support ongoing training and upskilling of SME leaders in areas such as management and digital skills to support growth and innovation, as is the case for Help to Grow, a government backed programme supported by Leeds Beckett University. There are also a range of sector specific groups and networks, which encourage collaboration between universities and industry across the region and support talent pipelines, including the Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network, White Rose Industrial Physics Academy, Connected Campus (Screen Yorkshire) and Space Hub Yorkshire. Yorkshire’s universities also offer a range of support around employability and entrepreneurship, including support for start-ups, agencies for freelancers, placements and projects within courses, careers fairs and talks, careers services and platforms, and employability skills embedded in the curriculum.
Collaboration with SMEs
Strengthening SME engagement should be a key priority moving forward given the large fall (-39%) in total interactions highlighted in NCUB’s report. This was addressed at the launch event where the importance of reducing timescales and bureaucracy, as well as increasing clarity around intellectual property rights in any collaboration, were highlighted as key steps that could help increase SME engagements. It was emphasised that collaboration could represent just one project for a university or large company, but it takes up much more relative capacity for an SME and could be their entire business, meaning they are particularly vulnerable to changes in timescales and red tape. There are already many initiatives that place a particular focus on collaboration with SMEs in the region, some of which have already been mentioned above. It is also worth drawing attention to the work of other organisations and partnerships in facilitating and coordinating these relationships between universities and SMEs. For example, Leeds City Region LEP runs the Skills for Growth programme which connects SMEs with local schools, colleges and universities around skills gaps, talent and productivity. Another example is the work of York & North Yorkshire LEP around local graduates supporting SMEs with digital skills for business recovery and a partnership with the University of York on supporting graduates into jobs with SMEs. The Go Higher West Yorkshire partnership also has a range of activities in this area including their Skills Group working with higher and further education partners on opportunities for graduate employment and employer engagement, particularly supporting SME engagement.
Collaboration to Tackle Global Challenges
Another key theme highlighted in the NCUB report was the importance of working together to tackle complex challenges and find innovative solutions that surpass existing structures. The contribution of Professor Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, and Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research & Innovation, to the report highlighted the importance of collaboration over competition to help address complex and interconnected global issues through innovation and entrepreneurship. To work towards this, it was highlighted that projects should include diverse networks (from universities, industry and policy) throughout all stages of development and implementation to allow a better understanding of the problem from the beginning and encourage more inclusive solutions. Other actions highlighted as important for collaboration included: clear entry points; themed networking events; efforts to reduce inequality; use of innovative technology and training in digital skills. Against this context, it was reassuring to read that more Vice-Chancellors are prioritising, in their institutional strategies, regional impact and employer engagement over peer competition.
Broad Networks of Collaboration
Engagement between universities and businesses should not be viewed in isolation, instead it should be considered as a key aspect within broader ecosystems of collaboration with policymakers and other education providers, as well as other areas of the public and third sector. It is also important that collaboration and innovation between universities and businesses is not just seen in terms of science and technology, but also across all sectors and domains. Yorkshire Universities is contributing directly to facilitating broad networks of collaboration through involvement in the Regional Development Group and the West Yorkshire Innovation Network (WYIN). In the last WYIN meeting there were presentations spotlighting the role of universities in the region including the 3M BIC in Huddersfield and the role of Leeds Beckett in the Help to Grow programme. Higher education providers and businesses will need to work closer together, and with a wide range of actors, including further education providers, local and combined authorities, and civil society, to ensure that innovation drives greater inclusive growth and that collaboration efforts truly meet the needs of society at all levels.