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Charles Levy
Senior Economist
Charles  Levy

University-Business collaboration – another task for an over burdened sector?

Authors: Charles Levy Charles Levy

28 February 2012

We know that our higher education sector is under strain. Complicated caps on student numbers, changes in tuition fees and the ‘impact’ agenda have created a baffling mix of institutional and individual incentives across the sector. In this context Sir Tim Wilson today published his review setting out over 50 recommendations for how to improve university-business collaboration. A small but vocal minority in the sector will be grumbling that they just want to be left alone to get on with their research.

It won’t matter to these individuals that the report is excellent. Sir Tim has captured how far the agenda has come in the past decade – the old adage of academics in ivory towers is long gone. He has set out in detail the diverse ways in which our universities and other higher education institutions connect to our economy to deliver skills and support innovation, flagging five ‘domains’:

  • From future-oriented research in advanced technologies, to in-house upskilling of employees; 
  • From university science park developments, to support for entrepreneurial research students finding their way in the business world; 
  • From providing progression routes to higher-level apprenticeships, to enhancing the skills of post doctoral staff for their transition into the business world; 
  • From improving enterprise skills amongst our undergraduates, to enabling small companies to recognise the value of employing a first graduate; 
  • From supporting spin-out companies from research teams, to helping government agencies attract major employers to invest in the UK. 

Initiatives in these areas such as devices to increase the number of sandwich courses will help to advance the agenda and ensure that universities continue to increase their contribution to innovation and our economy.   

The risk is that many will dismiss university-business collaboration as a side-line for the sector – something extra that universities do to contribute to society, almost a CSR agenda for universities. Worse still, many still view this activity as a priority that must compete with teaching and research. Academics are time poor – last week new data showed the sector to be one of the worst offenders for unpaid overtime. Surveys have found that when asked what stops them from engaging better with businesses, academics are likely to cite a lack of time as the greatest barrier. 

But this misses the key point about university-business collaboration. Done well, engaging with business should complement, rather than rival teaching and research in almost all fields. As we have argued before, the best examples of university-business collaboration involve finding ways to make ‘practice’ help to develop the research and teaching activities of a department. Today’s recommendations are useful, but we also need to keep working to erase the perception of university-business collaboration as an added burden for our universities.