Reasons universities and businesses should talk

Anne MacColl, Associate Director, Research & Enterprise at Stirling University
Anne MacColl, Associate Director, Research & Enterprise at Stirling University

Anne MacColl, gives three compelling reasons why universities need to talk business.

With over 180 HE organisations in the UK alone, Western Europe has a lot to be proud of when it comes to international reach and reputation for excellence. Turning great research into innovative products and services, and helping entrepreneurs transform ideas and challenges into business opportunities can enhance the international reputation of European universities as innovation drivers, not just innovative thinkers. So what’s stopping us?

Scotland example

Take Scotland as an example. Recent evidence on Scotland’s Higher Education R&D (HERD) performance is strong by any standards, fourth highest in the OECD out of 24 countries, ahead of RUK and Baltics[1]. So far so good. But when it comes to business R&D (BERD), Scotland is near the bottom of the class, ranking 22nd out of 24 countries. So it’s clear that the conversion rate from HERD to BERD is low – and this presents an opportunity to bring the worlds of Higher Education and business R&D much closer together, for mutual benefit, Scotland, UK and Europe wide.

World renowned Stirling University Institute of Aquaculture

Now it’s not all doom and gloom: there are some hidden gems which serve as great examples of “bucking the trend”. The University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, for example, world renowned for its expertise in aquaculture research, works extensively with UK and international seafood and salmon industries in this globally growing sector, creating collaborative partnerships to tackle the industry’s key challenges such as the new innovative “cleaner fish” project, where little wrasse fish act as natural cleaners for parasites on salmon.

3 reasons to tap into businesses

There are three great reasons right now for HE institutions across Europe to tap in to businesses’ needs and discover more hidden treasure.

  1. The first reason is all about the money. HE institutions in the UK, squeezed by public sector spending constraints, must seek ways to diversify their income streams if they are to stay afloat. HE Funding council research grants have been reducing steadily over the past five years. Conversely, the amount of research funding received by UK universities from the EU has grown every year for the past 10 years, from £221m in 2003-4 to a healthy pot of £690m disbursed in 2012-13. Securing a share involves a different approach centred on solving businesses and industry needs. HE institutions would do well to focus on accessing these and many other innovation-led funding streams, such as those proposed by Innovate UK, and Scotland’s eight new Innovation Centres.
  2. Secondly, an increasingly globally competitive world means top UK and European universities must work hard to stay in pole position in global university rankings. Whilst still holding their own, success for Asian universities in particular from Hong Kong and Singapore are challenging their dominance. New reputations are forged on meritocracy, new agile ways of thinking, and fresh collaborative international relationships, rather than on the comfortable laurels of tradition. HE institutions in Europe can retain a foothold by cultivating both business-led as well as academic collaborations.
  3. The third and perhaps most important reason involves the “innovation continuum”. At the pure research end of this continuum sits “blue sky” thinking. Towards the opposite end is where you find HE research connected to solving business, society and industry challenges – the “applied innovation driven research” end. Helping HE institutions link get smart about linking their research and teaching excellence to purposeful innovation and product/service/process improvements can help grow their future income streams, increase student employability, and secure their future as highly valued organisations who help deliver solutions for real world issues.

[1] National Statistics 1 April 2015: Gross Expenditure on Research and Development Scotland 2013