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CIHE sees bright future in wake of Wilson

The Council for Industry and Higher Education has said on Twitter that it is “up for the challenge” set by Tim Wilson over its future. This would see its expansion into a national forum on university and business collaboration.

In his review on business and university collaboration, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on 28 February, Wilson suggests establishing a body—which would need some short-term government funding—to oversee and provide information on the full spectrum of business and university activities.

The review contains 30 recommendations, including calls to expand internships for both undergraduates and postgraduates.

The former vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire also calls on the Technology Strategy Board to expand its knowledge transfer partnerships scheme but to reconsider its knowledge transfer networks.

The TSB should build on its plans to establish a network of six catapult centres for technology innovation by identifying areas with the potential to produce industry and university collaboration, he says. These could provide a “dynamic pipeline” for future catapult centre themes.

Research councils should seek to improve their secondment programmes and encourage business representatives to work with them as proposal reviewers by reducing the associated administrative burden.

“Wilson’s report is, like the man himself, bloody sensible,” wrote CIHE chairman David Docherty in the Huffington Post. “Its thesis is symmetrical, sophisticated and sensitive—collaboration is good for the student, the institution, business and the UK. It doesn’t fall for hackneyed arguments about oven-ready graduates or learning for learning’s sake. Instead it produces a menu of practical approaches to doing what universities do best to meet the modern needs of modern businesses, whilst nonetheless being grounded in a moral view of widening participation.”

Perhaps responding to Wilson’s suggestion that the CIHE is the only body with the appropriate skill to fulfil the role, the Association of University and Industry Links said a few high-quality knowledge exchange organisations are already in operation.

“If any substantive national forum were to be assembled to provide objective analysis and advice it is in the public interest that we achieve value for money by consulting those existing associations and tapping into their long established expertise and know-how,” reads a statement.

Auril agreed with Wilson on many points, including the concern that the relationship between the UK research councils and the Technology Strategy Board is “looser” than may have been originally intended and that they may need to offer greater clarity on their respective roles.

According to Auril, its members have reported “some confusion in the offering between the two bodies”.

The Russell Group of research-intensive universities said it welcomed Wilson’s recognition of the important role of universities in economic growth. However, it said many of the report’s recommendations risk “tying universities up in red tape.” These include the call for institutions to provide extra data on the job destinations of postgraduates.

The University Alliance, which describes business collaboration as its member institutions’ bread and butter, “strongly welcomed” the review. It picked out maintaining support for knowledge transfer partnerships and incentivising sandwich degrees as particular highlights.

Wilson argues that the Higher Education Funding Council for England should ease student number control for degree programmes that offer sandwich years and that fees for these years should be frozen at around £1,000.

The 1994 Group warned against “setting arbitrary fee limits” for sandwich courses as this could limit the resources available for such offerings.

Like the Russell Group, it welcomed recognition of higher education’s work with businesses and said many recommendations were positive. However, it added that others, including the sandwich year fees proposal, need “careful consideration if unintended consequences are to be avoided”.

In the review, Wilson recommends the CBI, Research Councils UK and Universities UK should look jointly at how restricted visa regulations are affecting universities in their work with industry.

He is also surprisingly ambivalent on the subject of doctoral training centres: large-scale, research council-funded centres where students are trained in large cohorts with a strong business focus. While this leads to an emphasis on team work and problem solving, says Wilson, such concentration could “reduce the ability of universities to maintain a comprehensive portfolio of research activities to serve their local business needs.”

He suggests that a hub and spoke model for training might be an appropriate model for the research councils to consider.