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Greater business-university collaboration will reap rewards

Interactions between UK businesses and universities are broad based and beneficial, but are being held back by firms’ lack of capacity and information to tap this key resource, says a new report co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

University of Cambridge: greater business-university collaboration will reap rewards.

Valuable interactions between businesses and universities in the UK take many forms beyond spinoff and licensing deals, but a lack of capacity by firms and information from universities is holding back even greater collaboration, says a new report issued today (24 March).

The report by the National Centre for Universities and Businesses (NCUB) and the Centre for Business Research (CBR) at Cambridge Judge Business School found that people-based interactions are the most common form of business-university interaction at 45%, followed by problem-solving interactions at 30%, commercialisation at 24%, and community-based interaction at 23%. Even within the commercialisation category, use of academic publications was most common at 19%, while spinouts and licensing were only 9% and 2%, respectively.

Report based on survey of nearly 4,000 companies

The report based on an online survey of 3,823 companies in 2020-21 found that there is much untapped potential for the university sector to work further with business. Collaboration is curtailed by companies’ lack of capacity to tap this important resource and by a lack of information from universities on how they can help businesses.

Alan Hughes.
Alan Hughes

“A key finding of the report is that interactions take multiple forms that are far more frequent than spinoff and licensing transactions, and the vast majority of businesses interacting in these multiple forms find benefits that meet or exceed their expectations,” said report co-author Alan Hughes of Imperial College Business School and the Centre for Business Research (CBR) at Cambridge Judge, who is part of an online NCUB webinar panel today to introduce the report.

“But the survey results also make clear that it’s lack of capacity on the part of companies, and a shortage of information provided by universities – rather than the costs of interaction – that is holding back greater collaboration with the UK’s university sector, and this is costing the economy in terms of innovation and competitiveness. This issue could be addressed by businesses devoting more attention and staff to building their capacity for interactions with the university sector. This would be time and money well spent in terms of potential rewards and impact on company performance.

“Universities could also devote more attention to informing companies about the support that can be provided, and business schools have an important role to play in this.”

Firms lack ability to seek knowledge from universities

Among the more detailed findings, the survey showed that companies of all types and sizes are “lacking in the ability to search for external knowledge from universities and invested only modest effort and time in integrating this knowledge into their companies”. More than half of companies with at least one interaction with universities said that lack of resources was the biggest constraint on further interaction, followed by difficulty in identifying a university partner to help their businesses.

The impact of COVId-19 has caused major disruptions to university-business links, with more than a third of firms reporting that it had impacted their interactions with universities. If the destructive impact of the pandemic on collaborations persists it will harm future economic growth and business performance.

The 115-page report – The Changing State of Business-University Interactions in the UK 2005 to 2021 – is co-authored by Alan Hughes of Imperial College Business School and the CBR at Cambridge Judge; Michael Kitson, Assistant Director of the CBR; Ammon Salter of the University of Bath; David Angenendt of Technical University of Munich and the CBR; and Robert Hughes of the CBR.

Other findings of the report include:

  • UK businesses interact with universities on a global scale, not only locally or regionally. “Knowledge exchange interactions operate over multiple regional, national and international geographies.”
  • Individual academics and individual professional staff at universities play a big role in starting and sustaining collaboration with businesses. “Personal contacts are important mechanisms for university-company interactions.”
  • The diversity of university types in the UK higher education sector is a “strength of the system”, because companies interact with large research-focused universities as well as smaller and more specialised institutions.
  • Companies that interact with universities rely on a diverse spectrum of academic disciplines.

Universities can help in full range of business functions

“Companies seek university interactions to solve the full range of business functions,” says Alan Hughes. “These wider functions span strategy and business organisation, finance, logistics, human relations and marketing. As a result, interactions spread far beyond the STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths) disciplines to encompass, in particular, business and management studies and the social sciences, as well as arts and humanities. Non-STEM disciplines are particularly significant in knowledge-intensive services and other service industries, which are the dominant sectors in UK economic activity.”

More than 80% of all companies surveyed said their university interactions met or exceeded their expectations, yet this was greater in more business-related areas of interaction such as human resource management, financial planning and business strategy. Interactions that did not meet expectations were concentrated in tech and process development, as well as logistics and procurement.

Michael Kitson.
Michael Kitson

Key role for business schools

“This finding is a reminder that the UK higher education sector, including business schools, play a role far broader than only in the well-publicised technology sector,” said co-author Michael Kitson, Associate Professor in International Macroeconomics and Director of the MBA Programme at Cambridge Judge.

“Developing new technologies are of course important, but the survey shows that a focus only on technology risks businesses and universities alike missing out on organisational and other business-related activities that benefit companies across the UK.”