Managing University-Industry Engagement and Partnerships for Research

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Dan King, who leads Research Consulting’s work on partnerships and knowledge exchange, reflects on partnerships and industry engagement, in advance of a new benchmarking study planned for 2019. Following Research Consulting’s benchmarking study of research contract management, we are planning a similar approach to a study on partnerships and industry engagement. Our plans are driven by interest from a number of UK and Australian universities, and the wider policy and management environment makes this an area of significant interest. Click here to express interest.

Industry engagement and the development of long-term partnerships is a sustained area of Government policy attention and an area of growing reputational and financial importance for universities. For a period the number of high-level UK Government reviews of university-business interactions averaged nearly one per year (Wilson, Witty, Dowling, McMillan, 2012-16). Underpinning this was, of course, the big game changer that was the introduction of “impact” into REF 2014.

For the few who could leverage significant co-funding from their industrial partnerships, major new funding opportunities emerged. One example is the Research Partnerships Investment Fund (launched in 2012), which has since deployed £680m into universities – open only to those projects that could raise a minimum of £20m as industry co-funding.

The current landscape sees further emphasis on partnerships through the Industrial Strategy, which significantly increased funding into R&D in the latest budget as part of a vision for an economy driven by research and innovation. And, of course, we await the further developments of Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF).

Existing benchmarks, such as HE-BCIS, are largely confined to university-level output assessments which are based on those done nationally and are typically volume indicators e.g. industry-funded research or patent applications.

Whilst useful at a big picture level, these metrics do little to help Directors and Senior Managers to benchmark their operational approaches to support.

Managing industry engagement and partnerships

Despite much scrutiny of the output metrics – in country or international – there has been little attention given to how universities best support and manage these activities at an operational level. Some have likened universities to a collection of sole traders (the academy) each pursuing a different approach and offer to industry. So how does a university marshal all the elements of their activity, to deliver integrated value to partners? Perhaps this issue lay behind the somewhat startling finding from Professor Ann Dowling’s 2015 Review of university-business collaborations:

I wrote to Vice-Chancellors of research active universities to ask them to provide an overview of their current long-term research collaborations with industry. One of the notable outcomes of this exercise was a realisation that universities varied enormously in the method by and extent to which they captured this information with some finding it near impossible to provide a ready answer to the question posed.The Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations (2015)

Have things moved on since then? If not, how will these universities prepare their responses to the KEF?

I suspect that behind this mixed response lay institutional management decisions around resources and priorities for partnership support roles.

The need to build and manage partnerships is undoubtably changing the nature of research development roles within universities and we saw evidence for this in our report for PraxisAuril on the “State of the Knowledge Exchange & Commercialisation Profession in 2017”. And there is now the emergence of some suitable training provision for these new roles from PraxisAuril and ARMA.

Directors in charge of Research and Knowledge Exchange are resourcing “partnership” roles within their teams – generating additional questions around skills, measuring success, KPIs, and development pathways for these individuals. New approaches to governance and interfaces across professional teams, such as employability and alumni relations, are set to emerge from this.

International perspectives

Of course, these issues are not confined to the UK. In Australia there are noted concerns around the level of industry engagement following a major review of research funding arrangements, leading to the introduction of new funding and policy arrangements. Universities in Australia are facing perceived weaknesses regarding their university-industry engagement with both corporate businesses and SMEs.

There is a widespread view in Australia that university-industry research collaboration is not working well. The future of university-business interactions is heavily contingent on building stronger trust-based relationships through ..[an].. increase in the capacity and capability for engagement.Dr John H Howards, 2017

Recently the Times Higher commented on this area globally, noting growing public funding support for industry-university collaboration across Europe.

Data from the past four years of the World University Rankings suggest performance on industry collaboration is converging…there are still plenty of European countries that lag behind on industry income – the UK being one of them

Creating a new knowledge base for Research and KE Directors

Several universities have approached us to express interest in a benchmarking study of industry engagement. We are now opening this up to potential participants in the UK, Ireland and Australasia. We are looking to recruit a group of universities prepared to contribute to the study and learn from the outcomes.

This new study will build on the approach developed in our 2018 Research Contracts Benchmarking study. Unlike existing mechanisms for benchmarking, our approach focuses on the management issues faced by Directors of Research and Knowledge Exchange. The sorts of issues we would aim to explore include:

  • the recruitment, skills and training for these the new Research & KE staff roles;
  • the extent and depth of account management practices and support systems, and how these link to governance;
  • the remits of resources devoted to partnership or industry engagement, and how they link to other university functions (e.g. employability, alumni, degree apprenticeships);
  • how practices are being shaped by feedback from industry partners;
  • the extent and role for university collaborations in this area, balancing; and
  • how metrics and performance are managed at the team and individual level.

Within the UK, a number of drivers for this exist, such as the requirement from public sponsors for industry co-creation and co-funding in research projects and the requirement to realise impact from research.

A benchmarking study for industry engagement and partnership.

Our approach to benchmarking involves a common survey completed by the project participants. This includes numeric and narrative elements, enhanced through discussions with participants and group workshops. Participants will receive a (confidential) bespoke institutional report and a public report will summarise outcomes.

To express interest in this planned study, use the button below or contact us directly:

Our first action will be to discuss the proposed approach with a small number of interested universities, shaping the questionnaire and focus of the study.

Find out more

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