20 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Plan to benchmark university-business collaborations

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson has outlined his vision to secure the UK’s status as a “pioneering nation” and called for universities to secure more return from the research conducted by institutions across the United Kingdom.

He also announced plans to benchmark the performance from university-business collaboration and knowledge exchange.

Speaking at the Higher Education Funding Council for England or HEFCE’s annual conference last week, Johnson reinforced the importance of science and innovation in the UK’s Industrial Strategy and urged universities to deepen collaborative relationships with businesses to ensure that the country’s innovative strength has “real-world and economic impact”.

New analysis published by HEFCE of the Higher Education-Business and Community Interaction Survey shows the progress being made in improving knowledge sharing between UK universities and the commercial sector, which has continued to grow in 2015-16, with income reaching a record £4.2 billion (US$5.5 billion).

But the UK still lags behind comparable countries like the United States in terms of intellectual property income per research resource and the number of successful spin-off companies, according to a government statement.

Johnson said: “Universities have a vital role to play in their local communities and in the national economy. Given the record levels of public investment in R&D, it is essential that universities engage with businesses and communities to make the most of their knowledge and research.”

He said there are great examples of this across the country but the system needs to “find a new gear”.

University income from business engagement is growing more slowly than the economy as a whole, with British universities producing fewer spin-outs and less licensing income per pound of research resource than their US counterparts, he said.

“As a greater proportion of R&D takes place in universities in the UK than in other countries, it’s especially important that we get this right.”

To help close this gap, the minister announced plans to ask Research England within the new UK Research and Innovation body to consult the sector on the development of a new, public ‘Knowledge Exchange Framework’ or KEF to benchmark the performance from university-business collaboration and knowledge exchange.

This builds upon the work undertaken by the knowledge exchange steering group, led by Professor Trevor McMillan, vice-chancellor of Keele University, and complements his proposal that the sector should develop clear statements of purpose in order to increase the effectiveness of engagement with business and the wider community, the government said.

Alongside the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework, which assess respectively the quality of research, and teaching and learning performance, the KEF will act as a benchmark for universities to help improve practice in knowledge exchange, helping ensure that the UK benefits from the research, skills and knowledge in the higher education sector.

Responding to Johnson’s announcement, Maddalaine Ansell, University Alliance chief executive, said: “The KEF must look beyond simply the commercialisation of research, patents and intellectual property, which are only one aspect of a much wider range of interactions between universities, businesses and communities, alongside entrepreneurial activity.

“To work effectively it needs to reward and incentivise a full range of transformative collaborations, not just a narrow slice of existing activity. There are many paths to impact.”

She said the University Alliance universities work with 16,000 businesses, including 11,000 small and medium-sized enterprises, and more than two fifths of successful graduate start-ups come from its members. “So we’d support any move to give this aspect of universities’ mission greater recognition and support.”

Following the Science and Innovation Strategy 2014, HEFCE sought to increase the effectiveness of university knowledge exchange by establishing a knowledge exchange framework and steering group, led by McMillan.

A number of tools and good practice guides for knowledge exchange (such as “Good Practice in Technology Transfer”) have already been developed and have been used by universities when developing their knowledge exchange strategies.

Extensive data is already collected about universities’ knowledge exchange performance via the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s annual Higher Education-Business and Community Interaction Survey, and Research England will consult the sector as to how this data can be used to develop a balanced scorecard.

Other recommendations from the McMillan group are being taken forward, including the sector developing a set of common principles for effective knowledge exchange, and university leaders committing to adopting these principles.

Foster collaboration

In a press statement, the government said it has been clear on its ambition to foster greater international collaboration in science and innovation, recently signing a Science and Technology Agreement with the United States and outlining plans to seek an ambitious science and innovation agreement with the European Union.

The universities and science minister pledged an additional £18 million for the Rutherford Fund budget to attract the brightest minds to the UK. The funding is on top of the £100 million the government has already invested and will enable an additional 200 fellowships to start this year.

Johnson also announced the first four projects to receive funding from the £100 million Connecting Capability Fund.

Focused on university collaborations to boost the commercialisation of research, the first round will see groups of universities from England share £20 million to address areas such as age-related diseases, access to finance for spin-outs, and support for small and medium-sized enterprises as they scale up.
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