Economic Growth, Business & Higher Education

I am just back from a day in London at a posh briefing event which can be summarised as ‘the lunch not much cop, but the talks were surprisingly good and gave me lots to think about’.  So I thought it was worth sharing some of this while it was fresh in my mind.  David Sweeny (Director of Research, Innovation & Skills, HEFCE) started the day talking about REF and impact amongst other things.  One of the things that interested me was the return on investment from business interaction: £4-7 for every £1 spent which is quite good!  But impact is seen as a way of adding to the value of this investment further and the return on the RAE/REF which has consistently placed the UK ahead of the game.  For example, internationally we produce 5% of all the PhD’s globally, 7.9% of all research publications from just 1% of the World’s population!  Staff at BU play an important part in this.

It was the next talk that really made me sit up.  It was from a guy at Oxford Brookes (Kevin Maynard) talking about their approach to enterprise or to use his jargon ‘Knowledge Exchange’.  He was making the point that what is really crucial is that Knowledge Exchange – enterprise by another name – was not about wealth creation for an institution but about the ‘inflow’ of knowledge to inform it core businesses of research and education.  This is an important concept since he argued that it was central to: (1) employability, (2) course development, (3) ensuring research relevance to business/industry/society, and (4) increasing the breadth and capacity of the academic team and its professional development.  What he didn’t say, but is crucial here, is that it is central to a good student experience and staff motivation around enterprise.  I was really impressed by this since it is about the wider benefits to us as academics in engaging with industry/business rather than about simply generating income.  It is worth saying that they are also ahead of the game on that front too, but it is not the driver or what motivates academics to engage and engage they do.  One other point which also struck a cord was the idea of using CPD provision as a market tester for degree programmes; a dam sight cheaper to run up a couple of CPD courses than a whole degree and see it fail for lack of recruitment!

Paul Mason (Head of Development, Technology Strategy Board) was up next and talked about the re-vamp of their strategy due out later this month, but the bit I liked here was that he was talking about being ‘challenge led’ not ‘product driven’.  You start by finding out what the challenges are and then broker a solution based on the range of products or interventions you have available or can source.  This is basically what I have been talking about around BU  in the context of knowledge brokering as a way forward for us.  It is an important point; instead of working out what products we have to sell – CPD, different flavours of consultancy etc. – we need to first find out what challenges business face and want solving.  This fits with the need to be outward rather than inward facing in our approach in developing our new Research & Enterprise Strategy.  If we are to live the idea of providing a student experience in which employability is written large then links to business, industry and the professions are vital and we will need to up our game in these areas and being seen to provid real business/industry solutions is one way to do this.

There were several other speakers who talked about the importance of innovation and generating economic growth within future allocations of HEIF funding and the importance of promoting our success in applying and exploiting our research.  The importance of engaging with Local Economic Partnerships following the demise of the Regional Development Agency was also a common theme and something for us to reflect on as we develop our regional strategy.

The next speaker to make me sit up after my lunch time disappointment was Neil Bowering (Knowledge Transfer Account Manager, at Glasgow) he was talking about the Easy Access IP scheme which Glasgow have pioneered and received large amounts of fame and glory for.  His job is to exploit the IP in the large EPSRC portfolio at Glasgow.  Basically they give the majority of their IP, over 90%, away for free to any third party who can exploit it, keeping just a very small proportion to develop them selves.  It is a highly streamlined process on the basis that getting IP out and out fast is the key and that there is very rarely much money to be made given the cost of exploiting and developing products/ideas for market.  The real key is to make knowledge useful and work for economic growth and society by freely giving it up rather than developing it slowly/poorly, or trying to negotiate at length a stake in its exploitation.   It is the reputational gain that is the key factor and the ongoing dialogue with companies who take on that IP that counts.  Very streamlined, straight forward with four simple conditions on which the IP is given away. University resources directed were they need to be direct.  A fantastic scheme and model for us to look at; certainly one realistic to the nature and quantity of the IP we generate at BU.

Sir Tim Wilson former VC at Hertfordshire and a big wheel in a range of CBI and Business Engagement committees/reviews made a really nice point about a university education.  It is taken for granted by business/employers that graduates will have the key knowledge and the key technical ability, but what they are looking for more than anything are the intellectual skills that will set a graduate apart in the race for jobs.  The ability to critically think is central.   I am sure that our graduates have this but perhaps we should reflect more on how we develop and promote these vital skills?  This links with something that David Frost, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce had to say; graduates need work force training.  He particularly was drawing attention to skills of team work, customer service, communications and self management on top of core competency in numeracy, literacy and IT.

The final bit that is worth drawing attention to is from Staffordshire University and their success in producing a ‘one-stop door’ for all business enquires and importance of creating a business sales force within a university that is grounded both in business speak and the culture of academia.  This sales team act as translators projecting a professional sales orientated pitch outwards (based on relationship marketing), while allowing academics to be innovative and creative in their own way.  Effectively they act as the interface between these very different communities and cultures.  There is a lot to learn from this model especially around business relationship marketing and the long lead times involved.  One aside was reference to placements as part of an extended recruitment selection process for graduates which is self evident but worth reflecting on.

So in summary there is lots of good practice out there to learn from and to develop this summer as we evolve BU’s future Research & Enterprise Strategy.

2 Responses to “Economic Growth, Business & Higher Education”

  1. Martyn Polkinghorne

    The idea of resolving challenges resonates well with marketing theory in which selling benefits (not products) is most effective.

    Interestingly Technology Strategy Board funded Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) have already moved to being challenge led. The practical problem that arises is that external organisations coming to BU for help, guidance and expertise often don’t fully understand the challenge they are presenting us with (just the symptoms) and some form of diagnostic activity is therefore required.

    Those who sit on the boundary between two organisations and take the interpretation role that Matthew describes require high levels of empathy with both parties. Within BU we have a scattering of people (including myself) who are currently undertaking this very important role.

  2. David Kilburn

    I read Matthew’s recent post with interest and was particularly galvanised by the following statement.

    ‘If we are to live the idea of providing a student experience in which employability is written large then links to business, industry and the professions are vital and we will need to up our game in these areas and being seen to provide real business/industry solutions is one way to do this’.

    For the past 20 years or so I have been working with final year undergraduates on real live consultancy projects with blue chip retail companies such as Tesco, Sainsburys, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis,Dixons Stores group, Best Buy and Waitrose.The finalists spend about 5 months working on the solution to a business problem that the company itself is unable to solve.i see them on a regular basis to provide support, advice and guidance. They produce outstanding results for the clients and are often offered employment on the back of their intervention. Additionally, I have leveraged various sponsored fellowships for Academics resulting directly from the consultancy project.Thus far,we have had Fellowships with Barclays Bank (3 years @ £15,000)
    Dixons Stores Group (2 years @ £15,000), Best Buy (1 year @ £23,000), Tom James USA (1 Year @ £15,000 and Waitrose (3 years @ £20,000. This equates to sponsorship income of £173,000 from one course.
    Why don’t we replicate this model across the university?
    Not only does it generate income, it also gives our finalists an advantage over competing graduates in that they have learned so much from the intervention and employers are very impressed with their achievements.
    The retail degree not surprisingly has enjoyed 100% graduate employment since its inception and many of our retail alumni are now operating at Director level with major companies.
    This model is transferable so to quote Nike ‘Just do it!’