British Universities and Businesses Are Forming Stronger Research Ties

October 04, 2010

British universities are contributing more directly than ever to the country's business activity, according to a new report from the 1994 Group, an organization that represents 19 research-intensive universities.

The report, "Enterprising Universities: Using the Research Base to Add Value to Business," highlights the growing strength of collaborations between higher education and industry, and emphasizes the need for programs and incentives to foster such links.

The report describes "a clear upward trend in the amount of research that U.K. universities have conducted in collaboration with business," noting that over the past five years, collaborative research income between universities and business for the entire university system rose to $1.16-billion from $949-million. The number of spinoff businesses created as a result of university research has also increased, with income from such ventures among 1994 Group members rising to $161-million, from $71-million, over the past five years. The number of people employed by these companies increased during that period from 745 to 1,200.

Universities and businesses are also increasingly sharing equipment and facilities, a practice the report says the government should do more to encourage. Initial contacts between businesses and universities could also be fostered more actively, through initiatives like an Innovation Voucher program run by the Scottish Funding Council. The program, intended to foster collaborations that lead "to new products and processes that will benefit the business, the institution, and the Scottish economy," provides grants of up to $8,000 to universities to offset the costs of collaborations with businesses, which in turn, match the government contribution. The program and others like it have encouraged small and medium-size businesses to seek out research links with universities, with 86 percent of such companies "reporting that the initial collaborations facilitated by vouchers had led to further partnerships thereafter," the report says.

The report underscores what it describes as "the key role universities play in local and regional economies," but it notes that "collaborations have also become increasingly international, and many of the 1994 Group universities engage with businesses from abroad."

The report's publication, timed to coincide with the annual Conservative Party conference, which is taking place this week in Birmingham, comes as the government is finalizing a comprehensive spending review that is expected to result in cuts to university budgets of as much as 25 percent. Details of the review will be announced later this month.