Universities have a strong interest in being associated with thriving locations, as well as making national and international contributions. They are key elements in the knowledge economy and in the global competitiveness of places.
The report [Note 1] by Tomas Coates Ulrichsen of Cambridge University [Note 2] uses data on knowledge exchange since 2003 [Note 3], as well as qualitative information submitted by universities to HEFCE [Note 4]. It describes turbulence in demand during the period of study, arising from the major economic downturn since 2008 and from changes to the public sector including the winding-down of the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). The growth rate in income from university knowledge exchange has remained positive throughout [Note 5].
The report presents new analysis of the return on the public investment in knowledge exchange through Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF). For every £1 of HEFCE knowledge exchange funding over the period from 2003 to 2012, £6.30 has been earned in gross additional income, and the report acknowledges that the total benefits to the economy and society are likely to be greater. The analysis supports the conclusion of the Witty Review [Note 6] regarding the vital importance of HEFCE’s funding for knowledge exchange.
The report also shows a rebalancing of university efforts towards the private sector. Some universities have seized major opportunities to work with large businesses which are restructuring their research and development operations and seeking strategic innovation partners. Others are stepping into the gaps left by the abolition of the RDAs, and working with local economic development bodies to secure European Union or UK funding to provide innovation-related services to local and regional companies.
HEFCE intends to build on the analysis with further investigation of higher education’s role in growth, particularly in relation to small and medium-sized enterprises and anchoring in the local community, to explore the issues identified in the Witty Review.
Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive, said:
‘The anchor role of universities is critically important. All stakeholders now recognise that universities – their research, knowledge, expertise and talent – are the lynchpin for growing a modern, smart economy that benefits people around the country. I am committed to doing more to support this role, working with the enthusiasm and inventiveness of universities and colleges themselves.’
Tomas Coates Ulrichsen said:
‘What strikes me from the analysis is the dynamism within the sector. Far from being static entities, universities are exploring new ways of working with businesses, big and small, multinationals and local firms, with emphasis being placed on building longer-term relationships and more strategic partnerships. These partnerships also extend well beyond the private sector. Important relationships are being developed with local economic development partners such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, strengthening their role in supporting innovation and skills development in their local economies.’