Catalyst for UK-China business innovation

A new university-based initiative supported by the Chinese and United Kingdom governments is stimulating collaborative research and innovation between businesses in both countries.

The Lancaster China Catalyst Programme aims to create 60 collaborative partnerships between British and Chinese companies by 2018, programme director, Dr Nick Burd, told the International Higher Education Forum 2016.

The conference was organised by Universities UK and its international unit, on 1 March. One of the conference sessions looked at a study underway of universities and international innovation, due to be published this summer by the UK Higher Education International Unit. The Lancaster University programme will be among examples highlighted.

Supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE, and Lancashire County Council, the £5.1 million (US$7.2 million) Lancaster China Catalyst Programme “is already creating the platform to educate the next generation of international entrepreneurs”, claimed Burd.

Multidisciplinary teams

“We are looking at creating new products and services across a range of areas, particularly the environmental sciences, computing and engineering, and telecommunications, through collaboration between business in both countries,” Burd told University World News.

“A key element is a new two-year masters degree in international innovation specifically designed to serve the needs of the China Catalyst programme.”

Students study Chinese language and culture at Lancaster University’s Confucius Institute and undertake two projects, one in the UK and the other in China.

Working in multidisciplinary teams, the students spend five months in the UK and six months with partners in China. “The sweetener is a £16,000 bursary to help students with living costs while in China,” said Burd.

New way to Chinese market

“One of the great benefits of the programme is that it provides UK companies with a new way of accessing the Chinese market.”

The early phases tackle issues like intellectual property and how to do business in China and look in depth at cultural differences.

Companies are encouraged to go out on visits at least three times and the whole process is closely monitored at both ends, Burd said.

Support from the British and Chinese governments has been crucial.

“The Chinese government allows us to bid for competitive funding and we’ve made 11 bids so far which have netted CNY5.5 million (US$841,000) for joint projects,” Burd said.

Longer-term engagement model

“Companies like the longer-term engagement model and that we can call on resources, not just at the university but also the students. The support of the Chinese government has given us credibility for both the companies and the programme.”

The joint projects are concentrated in the south-east coastal Chinese Guangdong province, close to Hong Kong, where Lancaster University already has links.

Burd said: “To be successful in such international innovation, you must be in for the long haul. Partnerships rely on trust and take six to nine months to develop, particularly in China. They can’t be built overnight.”

One of the positive outcomes already seen is that innovation works both ways.

“This is not just exporting UK know-how to China. There has been a surprising amount of innovation coming back out of China towards the UK in terms of the products and services being developed through the partnerships.”

Burd said the first group of 28 students are nearing the end of their time in China.

“Many of them had not been to Asia before and they found it a rich and immersive experience. It should stand them in good stead for future employment and as the next generation of international entrepreneurs.”

New report

Meanwhile, a new report released at the International Higher Education Forum 2016, The Implications of International Research Collaboration for UK Universities, claims the average UK university is now more international in its co-authorship than most research intensive universities were 10 years ago.

Produced by Digital Science for the UK Higher Education Unit, the report says by the same measure, many UK universities were already more international 20 years ago than the current average for the United States.

The majority of the UK’s international collaborative partners in research are in other European Union, or EU, countries – with collaborative research growing fastest with EU partners like Germany and France, according to the report.

Looking ahead to the referendum on the UK’s EU membership, Vivienne Stern, director of the UK Higher Education International Unit, said: “This shows how much we stand to lose if UK universities were to be cut off from EU programmes and influence.”

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website.