‘Triple helix’ international partnerships not always easy

With a raft of recent announcements of British university tie-ups with China, and a general eagerness by Chinese universities to link with Western institutions, it appears partnerships are easy to set up. But at the Going Global 2017 conference, experts cautioned that Chinese government support is not enough for successful ‘triple helix’ collaborations between foreign institutions and researchers and industry in China.

A consortium of United Kingdom universities including Birmingham, Queen's University Belfast, Nottingham, Cardiff, University College London and Warwick has been set up to work with China’s top nine engineering institutions and will include closer collaboration with Chinese industry, it was announced this year.

The University of Birmingham reported an agreement with Beijing Jiaotong University to offer dual degrees to engineering students.

Queen Mary University of London signed up with China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University, known for aerospace and materials science, to set up a joint college for engineering in the city of Xi’an, to be taught mainly in English.

The University of Leicester has announced a new campus opening in September at the Panjin campus of Dalian University of Technology in northeast China offering dual degrees in engineering, mathematics and chemistry.

UK universities, particularly in the engineering sector where they are strong, can benefit from China’s huge industrial engineering needs and thirst for innovation.

Lots of suitors

However, at the British Council's Going Global conference held in London from 22-24 May, experts referring to the eastward shift in innovation and connecting up with China’s ‘triple helix’ of government, universities and industry links, warned that it takes more than an interest by Chinese universities and businesses for a successful collaboration.

China is making a push for innovation up the manufacturing value chain to boost its economy, said Matt Durnin, regional head of research and consultancy for British Council, China.

“This is China’s moment. China has a lot of suitors from across the world. It takes more to engage with them,” he said, adding: “You need to align with the major policy currents.”

However, “just because it is mandated at the centre does not mean it will be a success,” said Patrick Horgan, regional director for northeast Asia of Rolls-Royce in China.

Relationships with Chinese companies and institutions are often on an ad hoc basis. “It is a challenge to go beyond this to find the right industrial partners,” Horgan said.

The right partner

Michael Hill-King, collaboration director in the UK at China’s Huawei, a multinational telecommunications and mobile phone and equipment company, said: “It’s very important to find the right kind of partner. Find a partner with similar interests to you in terms of research agenda, similar local environment characteristics.”

Organisations should look for institutions at a similar ranking and with good transport links, he continued. 

“You have to visit. You have to spend time on the ground,” said Hill-King, adding that organisations should ask themselves if they could envisage being 'friends' with such an organisation, carrying out joint publications over a decade and attempting to jointly leverage government funding. 

Huawei has invested close to £10 million (US$12.9 million) in academic research in the UK, ranging from 5G, graphene applications and high-speed broadband to data science, 3-D audio and interactive multimedia technology.

Benefits and challenges

Tie-ups with industry in China had major benefits for UK institutions, the Going Global panel debating the topic said.

“The speed and the ability to be hungry and driven to pursue innovation to meet specific needs – China has some unique capabilities in that. It also has scale,” said Horgan.

“If you are doing things at scale and you are close to the manufacturing process, it means you have scope for innovation. You see things going wrong, you find a way of solving the problem, you address it.

“If you do things in a purely theoretical way and you don’t have a manufacturing industrial base at scale, it is possible that you miss some of that scope for innovation. So China does have some significant advantages here.”

But he warned of a challenge of the ‘triple helix’.

With a very rigid relationship and with strong alignment between industrial policy, central government, universities and corporate interests, as is the case with the state-owned sector in China – and working at scale – meant the benefits of mutual collaboration were not always obvious.

“If the message is only around indigenous [Chinese] innovation and acquiring capabilities and building that for use domestically, the message around collaboration and mutual benefit becomes lost,” Horgan said.

Universities needed to significantly scale up ambitions to get attention in China, even to the point of working with institutions that were previously conceived as competitors, Durnin concluded.