Return to pre-pandemic levels is good news, but government support remains vital, says Joe Marshall
This year has marked a period of relative political and economic stability after—depending on where you start counting—three, seven or 15 years of political and economic volatility. With US, European and probably UK elections set for next year, though, there’s every chance the calm will not last.
And some things did change—in particular, the growing sense of expectation and anxiety about the impact of artificial intelligence. The government has sought to position the UK as a centre of innovation and discussion on the technology, and November’s AI Safety Summit was broadly received as a win for the country’s convening power.
Elsewhere, the government’s stated focus on research and innovation as central to future prosperity was evident in the creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the publication of the Science and Technology Framework that followed shortly thereafter.
Later in the year, the UK’s association to Horizon Europe brought a belated sigh of relief from many in the sector. That deal turned out to be the last hurrah for George Freeman before he resigned as DSIT’s minister for science, research and innovation, to be replaced by Andrew Griffith.
Down to business
Most recently, the autumn statement and the raft of reviews and responses that accompanied it showed the government making a concerted effort to boost private-sector R&D, with most of the biggest sums and headline announcements being deployed to support companies in one way or another.
The autumn statement also brought analysis—if not a remedy—of the financial sustainability of research, with UK Research and Innovation releasing figures showing the gap between the costs of university research and the funding for it rising to £5 billion each year.
For both universities’ sakes, then, and in terms of delivering what the government expects and supporting the wider UK economy, collaborations between academia and businesses are set to get more important.
All this makes this year’s State of the Relationship report, the annual snapshot of collaboration trends between universities and businesses produced by the National Centre for Universities and Business, more than usually relevant.
The 2023 report, the tenth, gathers data for the 2021-22 academic year. It provides an overview of both the data and the views of those working across the sector. This year, reflecting the volatility of this period, we have sought to explore collaboration within three themes: resilience, reaction and reform.
Beginning with the data, this year’s report shows that, even though high inflation and low productivity and investment continue to hinder the wider economy, university-business collaboration has grown. Notably, in 2021-22, there were 88,881 university interactions with businesses, the highest level since before the pandemic and a 5.1 per cent increase on 2020-21.
Additionally, total income to universities from knowledge exchange activity grew to £1.2bn. This is up 16 per cent from 2020-21 and represents a return to pre-pandemic levels.
In terms of skills, there was also growth in the number of students beginning degree apprenticeships or higher apprenticeships, and in the number of days of continuing professional development and education delivered to business and the community.
Not everything grew: the number of patents granted to universities is down 21.9 per cent on 2020-21 to 1,622, reflecting a wider decrease in patents granted in the UK. Given the time-lag between the application and granting of patents it will be interesting to see whether this decline continues and what this means for university approaches to commercialisation and intellectual property.
In general, university-business collaboration is in some senses outperforming the economy in general. After 10 years in which the relationship has been affected by events such as Brexit and the pandemic, this is encouraging news.
So, how can this be sustained and improved? In terms of building on from where we are now, Jessica Corner, executive chair of Research England, highlights the importance of ongoing long-term public support in building capacity to collaborate.
Looking further into the future, Alexandra Jones, director of innovation and growth at the DSIT, argues that the department’s creation has enabled a strategic cross-government approach to research and innovation that enables universities and business to deliver progress in critical technologies.
To succeed, the UK research and innovation sector needs, alongside support from government, deep research expertise, sustained investment, strong international collaboration, innovative places, and an agile and inclusive workforce.
While there is no place for complacency, the data and insights presented in this year’s State of the Relationship report illustrate the importance of university-business collaboration. They give reasons for pride in the current system and optimism for the year to come.
Joe Marshall is the chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.
A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight