The mutual benefit of academia partnerships

By Olivia Minnock

Access to top experts for R&D will benefit any company, and now more than ever recruiting bright minds is top priority for business. In addition, higher education institutes are constantly looking to offer their students and academics the chance to build relationships with top players in the business world. Business Chief gathered some insight on how these partnerships can be developed and who stands to benefit.

Collaboration for a brighter future in the UK

Gary Davie, Partner and Head of Independent Providers at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, feels that in the UK, collaboration is the way forward to benefit those in education as well as potential employers.

“Whilst competition may in many ways fuels creativity and innovation, for the education sector, closer collaboration between further education, higher education and private providers could be just what UK students and learners need. People looking to take up a place in education would be able to see a demonstrable path towards a job and career progression, and businesses would have access to a talent pool which is equipped across the full breadth of the skills gap.

“HE policy in recent years has centered on competition, but that approach is starting to be questioned. A recent report by the Higher Education Commission, titled One Size Doesn’t Fit All, put the themes of collaboration and competition under the spotlight, suggesting that a culture within the education sector, which encourages both equally, would bring greater benefits for students and the wider business community.

“Learners navigating UK education are likely to encounter a variety of different providers; the linear model of traditional study is still popular, but by no means works for everyone. For those students whose educational outcomes are best delivered through different learning settings, for instance both vocational courses and academic qualifications, closer collaboration could be integral to their success.

“Educational institutions have been working together for a number of years in some form. For instance, colleges, universities and private providers have long collaborated to deliver foundation programs, franchised or validated provision. However, there is the potential for much more.

“Greater collaboration would be beneficial in two main ways: access to courses offered by further education and private providers would increase, equipping learners with a more diverse skillset for the workplace; and universities would benefit from more streamlined progression to higher education and the more extensive talent pool it would bring.

“Particularly for those learners who may not have considered higher education as an option, this clear progression through a range of learning environments would be a confidence booster, with an end goal in sight from the start. This could be a particular career or qualification, even up to Masters or PhD level.

“To achieve this, though, all providers must accept that they cannot do everything on their own and realize that working together while drawing on individual strengths is key.

“For employers, a more streamlined education sector could be vital in helping solve the UK’s productivity crisis. Jobseekers in the market currently tend to have a range of qualifications and with different roles requiring various accreditations, they may have to engage separately with a number of different providers. If a consortium model was set up which could support learners through the different stages of education or employment, the benefits to employers looking for candidates across the range of qualification levels would be great.

“As the world changes and Brexit looms on the horizon, students in the UK will no doubt be considering employment and education options overseas. With more educational institutions setting up foreign campuses and forging links with multinational companies, the options are there for learners and facilitation within the industry to support outward mobility will certainly be beneficial.

“The solution to the productivity puzzle has collaborative education at its heart. If learners have better access to the courses and qualifications of their choice which will get them the right jobs, and if employers can tap into the best possible pool of talent, the benefits will be felt by all.”

Partnerships to foster innovation and success

Meanwhile, Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Provost Chief Academic Officer of new STEM-focused university, NMiTE (New Model in Technology & Engineering), offers an academic perspective on this kind of collaboration. She also has some advice on how we can make these important relationships work.

“Having partnerships between universities and businesses is not new; there is now a long and evolving history of collaboration and innovation.

“Whilst there has always been a keen interest in developing partnerships that enable universities to understand the challenges being faced by industry in order to inform the creation of knowledge, or from companies to identify the next generation of capable employees, in more recent times the trend is for businesses to increasingly become co-creators of knowledge. Businesses are increasingly active participants in the development and delivery of the student learning experience.

“This provides a huge win-win for businesses, students and academics, and the benefits such partnerships deliver to industry are now even more valuable in our age of tightening R&D budgets and, seemingly, an ever-increasing speed of innovation.

“For instance, a study by IBM in the US found that a majority of tech industry and academic leaders felt partnerships are essential to provide students with skills for these jobs. It noted that when comparing the past five years to the next, those involved expect such partnerships will help bring significant improvements in meeting industry demands and ensuring the employability of students.

“Certainly, I have seen from my own experience how having students work closely with businesses has had a positive and inspirational effect. One such example from Sheffield University, where I taught previously, a group of students started their own company Handy Fasteners after having input that included local manufacturing businesses such as Gripple and Kingkraft. In another, a collaboration with Crown and Sheffield Hallam University resulted in the development of easy-open packaging.

“Ensuring tomorrow’s graduates have the skills your business needs is one benefit from such partnerships. Another, very sizeable one is that they enable companies to make breakthroughs through accessing the leading-edge research and analytical skills universities have and, of course, lots of bright and inquisitive minds. 

“However, businesses and universities are very different beasts, and making such partnerships work so successfully is not always easy. I have been personally involved with very many, and from the start it’s important to create a joint vision that identifies clear purposes and goals for the collaboration. It’s also important to mention the importance of them being viewed as long-term at the highest level of all involved. Ultimately, there also needs to be a clear strategic “what is in it for me” for both parties if it is to survive competing calls on time and budget over the ensuing years.

“There are lots of basics that need to be in place early on: in particular, agreements regarding intellectual property must be agreed upon and transparent, without putting undue risk on either party. In my experience the partnerships that work the best do so because expectations from both parties are managed right from the start; this is because there is a clear benefit for all involved, but mainly because partners really want to make it work.

“My institution, NMiTE (the new engineering university being created in Hereford in the UK), is taking these principles up a level by boldly forgoing set textbooks, lectures and exams. Instead we are focusing entirely on a curriculum based around teams of students solving practical challenges actually designed in association with engineering companies to reflect the technical and commercial challenges they currently face.

“We are currently working with a range of engineering and manufacturing companies to help tackle the current shortage of suitable graduates that such businesses regularly report, and I am inviting all others that are interested to get involved.

Academia for R&D – finding the perfect match

How might these businesses create the mutually beneficial partnerships they require in this day and age? One platform that’s helping them to do so is Konfer.

With a “trusted user group” that includes leading business groups and companies representing bioscience, commercial chemistry, cybersecurity, digital media, energy, food production, intelligent mobility and transport, land management, technology and textiles, Konfer aims to accelerate research partnerships with UK universities.

Founding members include Capgemini, National Tryst, and Unilever, and total members represent a collective turnover/income of over £48.6bn ($68.69bn). Konfer takes the form of a free online match-making tool, which connects businesses with research expertise and funding opportunities. It is backed by 132 universities in the UK and includes profiles of over 130,000 academics available for collaborative research. 

As a not-for-profit resource, Konfer has been funded and developed by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), Research Councils UK and Innovate UK. Since its beta launch in November 2017, Konfer has already helped big names like Jaguar Land Rover conduct vital R&D.

David Docherty, Chief Executive at NCUB, told Business Chief: “There’s significant untapped potential for businesses to establish mutually beneficial partnerships with universities… we were inspired by business leaders who said they would be better equipped to grow and exploit opportunities in the UK and internationally if they had better access and insight to academic research partners and innovation funding.”


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