Business-University Collaboration - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents

3  Initiatives to support collaboration

23. In addition to the initiatives administered through Innovate UK, a range of other programmes exist to support business-university collaboration through universities and local partnerships. In this section, we discuss activity aimed at increasing information flows between business and universities, changes to the funding landscape for university research, and new schemes aiming to further develop the business-university collaboration support landscape.

Information exchange between universities and business

24. The evidence we received suggested that the difficulty that businesses encountered when trying to access research and understand who might be a potential research partner was a key barrier for business-university collaboration.[53] We heard that the single most positive step the Government could take to improve business-university collaboration would be to ensure that the existing support was visible, clear and coordinated, using "targeted action to improve information rather than unconstrained funds".[54] Here, we consider three initiatives which aim to improve information flows: the Gateway to Research, the planned collaborative online platform and the university single point of contact.


25. The Gateway to Research is a Research Councils UK initiative, launched officially in December 2013, which:

    Provides a single entry point of access to information on what and whom we fund, and the outcomes of that research, in an accessible way that benefits users. The website has been designed to be of particular interest to innovative SMEs enabling easy access to information about current research projects and outcomes of past projects.

26. We heard that while this platform was "fit for purpose" and "quite a useful tool",[55] it could take "time and effort" to navigate, which risked putting off small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)[56] We therefore questioned Research Councils UK about the extent to which SMEs were using this resource, but this information was not available, as a capability to monitor users by type had not been built into the system.[57] Research Councils UK acknowledged that this was a weakness in the system, which needed to be addressed.[58] According to Research Councils UK, options for evaluating Gateway usage were currently under consideration.[59]

27. The Gateway to Research was intended to help SMEs access information about the research base. We are aware that this portal is still being developed. However, we are concerned about the lack of a capability to monitor who is using the Gateway, and therefore whether it is reaching its desired audience. This capability should be developed as a matter of priority, with the resulting data being used to inform the Gateway's future development. We recommend that, in its response to this report, RCUK provides details of the monitoring and evaluation of Gateway to Research users that will be undertaken, a timetable for data collection and an explanation as to how this data will inform future iterations of the Gateway.


28. In addition to Research Councils UK's Gateway to Research, the Government has promised a new online platform to improve the accessibility of research and expertise. The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) is:

    Developing a collaborative online platform which joins up university research and expertise with the needs of business. These intelligent brokering services, using online tools to pair up local businesses with the institutions and researchers that can support them, offer a potentially clear and simple way for businesses to access the research and expertise that can drive forward their growth.[60]

David Docherty, CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Business, told us that this platform would go beyond the Gateway to Research, in terms of delivery:

    [It] would be a bit like an eBay for intellectual property: could you find a way of the whole system coming together to support all the information that is available from universities, and through the research councils and the TSB, on one platform? We have been talking to all of those players for the past 12 months and there is a general agreement that this is a good idea.[61]

29. Iain Gray, CEO of Innovate UK, said that this new resource would add value to the existing system, by "taking advantage of existing databases like the Gateway to Research" and by helping "the SME that sits in one part of the country and is trying to access research capability in another part of the country".[62]

30. As yet, there is little information about what exactly is being developed, by whom and to what timetable.[63] Furthermore, the feedback we received on the platform's development did not seem to indicate that there had been comprehensive consultation on the subject.[64]

31. It is of paramount importance that research capability and funding opportunities to support collaboration are easily accessible, clear and navigable through a single interface. The new NCUB online platform should be developed to complement, rather than complicate, the existing information systems. However, it is unclear what processes or structures, if any, are in place to build on the capability of the Gateway to Research as part of this new platform.

32. As much of this work is being conducted by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), we recommend that the NCUB set out its plans for the development of the online collaborative platform. This should include an assessment of existing platforms and their respective capabilities, so that NCUB can demonstrate it is building on, rather than duplicating or complicating, existing capabilities. We also recommend that the NCUB includes in these plans a clear statement of objectives, planned functions and information on how it will engage with interested parties in the platform's development, alongside an estimated timetable for launch. The ability to monitor or classify users by type should be built into the platform's capability from an early stage.


33. In addition to the development of online databases, there have been calls for each university to "have a single point of entry to triage the needs of SMEs and direct them to the relevant part of the university".[65] The Government has previously rejected the idea of making a single point of contact for collaboration in universities mandatory, noting that such a contact point was encouraged[66] and already in place in the majority of institutions.[67]

34. We heard mixed opinions from universities on the utility of a single contact point. University Alliance supported the approach and said that their members had such a contact.[68] However, we were told this could be "a difficult area",[69] and that universities sometimes preferred to establish their own "sector-based gateways" instead.[70] For example, Sir Keith O'Nions, President and Director of Imperial College, said:

    We don't [have a single point of contact for SMEs]. That is not to say that I disagree at all with universities having single portals. The reason we haven't is pragmatic. I have already described that we have nearly 100 companies for which we are the landlord in our properties which have a particular SME relationship with the university.[71]

In addition, although a "way of getting beyond the Byzantine internal structure of the university and presenting a face that made sense"[72] was valuable, Professor Richard Jones, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, told us that universities should have to pay more than lip service to this. He argued that it was:

    Not […] good enough just to say, "Okay, we will put up a website that says, 'If you need us, this is the telephone number to ring.'" We need to actually understand how we can help, and in some places it could be research, but a lot of universities are deep institutions. Maybe, because we have got a Korean speaker, we could help [SMEs] find some new export markets. There are many different things.[73]

35. The single point of contact can be a useful point at which universities can gauge demand from industry for interaction and capacity to meet that demand. This single point of entry should be designed to enhance the other ways in which universities are encouraging interaction with industry.

36. Every university should have a single point of contact for businesses that are seeking to collaborate. The forthcoming NCUB online portal should clearly signpost contact information for each university, so that businesses looking to collaborate can easily find someone to talk to as a first point of call.

University-based funding for innovation

Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF)

37. Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) is provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) "to support and develop a broad range of knowledge-based interactions between universities and colleges and the wider world".[74] HEIF is used "to support business engagement" by hiring business support staff and securing the time of relevant academics.[75] HEIF has the potential to be important in helping a broader range of universities access funding for innovation. Professor Alan Hughes, Director of the UK Innovation Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, explained that in terms of university funding:

    Because the quality-related bit from the funding councils and the research council bit are massively concentrated in the top 10 to 15 universities, the amount that other universities get from those two sources is quite small […] HEIF is a very interesting incentive mechanism because it could lead to some valuable differentiation in our university system.[76]

38. Sir Andrew Witty's review of how universities could support local growth recommended that "the Government should make an explicit long-term commitment to HEIF, which should increase to £250 million a year" in order to strengthen incentives for universities to engage with SMEs.[77] That proposal received widespread support.[78] Our inquiry heard that HEIF "has been one of the demonstrably most successful uses of public money" and that there was "a very strong case"[79] for increasing it as a result of the "robust"[80] returns it has shown.

39. The Government has resisted Sir Andrew Witty's recommendation, arguing that "in the current tight fiscal environment […] we are unable to commit to raising the level of HEIF funding".[81] However, the Minister told us that the existing level of HEIF was "not to be sneezed at":

    The fact that it is seen to be, and is, successful is a good thing. […]We have set the Spending Review; that sets the envelope, as you know, for this period. The next one is next spring. It is no doubt the case, and I am sure the Committee will reinforce it in its report, that the higher education innovation funding mechanism has been a success, and no doubt will be a prime candidate for investment in the future.[82]

40. There is widespread support for increasing HEIF to £250 million per annum. HEFCE is currently assessing the evidence base for increasing HEIF. If the evidence base presented as a result of HEFCE's review of HEIF funding is strong, the Government should prioritise additional funds for HEIF in the next Spending Review.


41. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system by which the quality of research in UK higher education institutions is assessed by higher education funding bodies.[83] It is a periodic assessment used to inform how research funding is allocated, provide benchmarks of institutional performance, and to help demonstrate the benefits of public investment in research.[84] The 2014 REF exercise required that the "impact" of research be included in the overall assessment of research quality. Impact was considered in terms of the "reach and significance" of research outputs.[85]

42. There was positive feedback about inclusion of impact criteria within the 2014 REF.[86] However, we heard concerns about the reliability of mechanisms to measure impact and whether a focus on immediate, measurable outcomes from research would direct funding away from the basic research which is considered a strength of the UK university system. For example, the Russell Group warned that further increases to the weighting assigned to this particular REF criterion could "create perverse incentives" for universities to "discourage fundamental research of a novel and high risk nature".[87] It is believed that if the weighting attached to impact was increased further, universities might be inclined to alter their strategies accordingly, to the detriment of basic research.[88] We heard it was "very important"[89] to maintain the focus on basic research and not "dilute" [90] this, as there was "a real risk"[91] that doing so would undermine the strength of our research base.[92] HEFCE is currently carrying out an evaluation of the introduction of impact to the REF assessment process.[93]

43. Done properly, assessing impact as part of the Research Excellence Framework should help the higher education community to better communicate the purpose and quality of its work. Impact criteria should therefore enhance research quality assessments, not detract or distract from basic research, which may not have an immediately obvious commercial application. Our understanding of "impact" therefore needs to include social, economic and cultural factors, as well as how research can transform thinking within a field. Achieving this understanding will require sophisticated metrics, as well as an assessment mechanism designed to avoid the submission of stock answers as evidence to the review.

44. Care will be required when considering how much weight is assigned to impact within the overall assessment programme. The ability to produce high quality fundamental research is a strength of the UK's innovation ecosystem. This should not be taken for granted. There is a risk that increasing the weighting assigned to impact within the Research Excellence Framework beyond 20 per cent could distort funding away from this type of work, to the detriment of the overall system.

45. HEFCE should proceed with caution, and appropriate consultation, in its evaluation of impact criteria, taking into account concerns about both criteria design and weighting. Such consultation should include the full range of academic disciplines expected to engage with the REF, in addition to other interested parties. HEFCE should set out plans for such a consultation.

New initiatives to support collaboration

46. In addition to national, government-based initiatives to support innovation and collaboration, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) also play an important role. LEPs are "joint local-authority-business bodies" which work "to promote local economic development".[94] We have previously commented on their work in our report on the subject.[95] Here, we consider two schemes in which LEPs may have a role in supporting business-university collaboration: University Enterprise Zones and a new advisory hub.


47. A pilot initiative to create University Enterprise Zones (UEZs) was launched in 2014. These zones would "allow universities to push through local growth plans and support entrepreneurship and innovation" by providing spaces for small businesses and facilities for sharing knowledge with universities.[96] The evidence we received about University Enterprise Zones consistently said it was too early to evaluate the initiative, but warned that the funding pool (£15m) was very low,[97] and that the pilots lack "many of the incentives" found in established Enterprise Zones.[98] There were also concerns about the rules regarding who could apply to take part in the UEZ pilot, such as geographical restrictions or potential difficulties in submitting cross-LEP bids.[99] The view of our witnesses was that Government needed to "ensure that [UEZs] become part of the long term regional and national infrastructure"[100] and to investigate "how they overlay with things like city deals and with the economic development plans of LEPs".[101]

48. Universities are in a strong position to be able to drive growth across the country. Many have been active in local growth initiatives for some time, for example by engaging with LEPs. UEZs need to fit within this existing local ecosystem for innovation. How this is achieved should be built into the evaluation of the UEZ pilot scheme, using the examples of effective collaboration already highlighted by previous reviews.

49. LEPs must have the freedom to work collaboratively to develop innovative bids for future UEZs that maximise benefits from the low levels of available funding. The Government should confirm that future rounds of applications to the UEZ programme will be less restrictive in terms of who can apply to set up a UEZ, for example cross-LEP bids.


50. "Smart specialisation" is a framework designed to encourage local innovation "with each region building on its own strengths, to guide priority-setting in national and regional innovation strategies".[102] A smart specialisation strategy is defined by the EU as follows:

    'Smart specialisation strategy' means the national or regional innovation strategies which set priorities in order to build competitive advantage by developing and matching research and innovation strengths to business needs in order to address emerging opportunities and market developments in a coherent manner, while avoiding duplication and fragmentation of efforts.[103]

51. Development of so-called smart specialisation strategies is a necessary condition in order to apply for certain categories of funding, in particular European structural funds.[104] The European Structural and Investment Funds "are the EU's main funding programmes for supporting jobs and growth".[105] LEPs submitted their strategies for the use of these funds in early 2014. Despite these strategies having been appraised by BIS and Innovate UK,[106] there appears to be little information available about their implementation.[107]

52. The Government has agreed to set up an Advisory Hub for smart specialisation, the development of which is being led by the National Centre for Universities and Business, in order to help "better connect universities and businesses to aid local growth".[108] As Antony Harper, Head of Research at Jaguar Land Rover, told us "if we know that institution X or Y is the national centre for expertise for X or Y then it is much easier" to engage.[109] In a recent consultation paper, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) set out its plans to develop this Hub. This stated that:

    The Advisory Hub will act to pull together the evidence on what is working and aid strategic decision making about where strengths really lie. To encourage and attract greater regional R&D investment, there needs a greater focus on specialising in areas where a region can make a real difference. Once this is better understood then strategic and collaborative action can follow.[110]

David Docherty, CEO of the NCUB, told us that they were "still trying to understand" exactly what smart specialisation meant for the innovation ecosystem, but that he was "hoping that we will be a trusted source of information".[111]

53. The NCUB will make recommendations about how to proceed with the proposed Hub to Government, with an expectation of a ministerial decision on the way forward in late 2014 and establishment of the Hub from early 2015. The Minister told us that he was "considering" the NCUB's proposals, but could not give a date at which a decision, or further information, would be announced.[112] In the meantime, the devolved administrations have developed their own smart specialisation strategies, LEPs have submitted their strategies for European structural funding, and it is unclear from the NCUB consultation document what involvement these administrations would have with the national Hub.[113]

54. If the UK is to have a coherent innovation strategy, it is vital that there is a UK wide picture of the capacity, capability and coherence of local innovation ecosystems, and how these contribute to UK-wide growth goals. Smart specialisation should be the means by which we understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of local, devolved and national innovation landscapes and strategies. Businesses operate across these borders and therefore government at all levels must provide a coherent package of innovation support.

55. LEPs should be fully consulted as a key stakeholder in developing the NCUB Advisory Hub. This would allow sharing of best practice and advice on implementing strategic plans for European Structural and Investment Fund allocations. These attributes should be built into the NCUB's recommendations to Government on the way forward for the Advisory Hub. The proposed Advisory Hub should complement and link with the planned NCUB online platform. In addition, the Hub should link with existing relevant work, such as best practice guidance and other sources of Government support for business.


53   For example: Q122, Q333, Axillium (BUF66) para 1, Institute of Cancer Research (BUF61) Back

54   NCUB (BUF20) para 23 Back

55   Q333 [Dr Wapenhans] and Q336 [Dr Skingle] Back

56   Q333 [Professor Beasley] Back

57   Q239 [Professor Hunter] Back

58   Q242 [Professor Hunter] Back

59   RCUK (BUF74) para 1 Back

60   BIS, Government's response to Sir Andrew Witty's Review of Universities and Growth, 2014, p10 Back

61   Q55 [Dr Docherty] Back

62   Q247 [Iain Gray] Back

63   Q335 [Professor Beasley and Dr Skingle] Back

64   Q237 [Professor Hunter], Q244 [Professor Hunter] and Q335 [Professor Beasley and Dr Skingle] Back

65   BIS, Encouraging a British Invention Revolution: Sir Andrew Witty's Review of Universities and Growth, para 14, See also: Science and Technology Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13, Bridging the valley of death: improving the commercialisation of research, HC 348. Back

66   BIS, Government's response to Sir Andrew Witty's Review of Universities and Growth, 2014, p 4 Back

67   As measured through the annual HE-BCI survey. Back

68   Q34 [Libby Hackett] Back

69   Q164 [Nigel Foster] Back

70   Q164 [Professor Jones] Back

71   Q34 [Keith O'Nions] Back

72   Q164 [Professor Jones] Back

73   Q164 [Professor Jones] Back

74   HEFCE, What we do, accessed November 2014: HEFCE funded institutions in England are eligible to receive HEIF. Back

75   Q271 [Dr Sweeney] Back

76   Q6 [Professor Hughes] Back

77   BIS, Government's response to Sir Andrew Witty's Review of Universities and Growth, 2014, p17 Back

78   See, for example: Q31 [Keith O'Nions], Institute of Cancer Research (BUF61), University of Cambridge (BUF57), GSK (BUF56), Oxfordshire County Council (BUF60), University of Manchester (BUF52), Russell Group (BUF47), National Physical Laboratory (BUF38) Back

79   Q31 [Keith O'Nions] Back

80   Q5 [Professor Hughes] Back

81   BIS, Government's response to Sir Andrew Witty's Review of Universities and Growth, 2014, p17 Back

82   Q401 [Greg Clark] Back

83   REF, Homepage, accessed November 2014  Back

84   REF, Sector impact assessment, 2014  Back

85   REF, Assessment criteria and level definitions, 2014 Back

86   See, for example: Q328 [Dr Skingle], GSK (BUF56), Fraunhofer UK (BUF54), University Alliance (BUF37) Back

87   Russell Group (BUF47) Back

88   Q89 [Professor Fitt and Professor Walmsley] Back

89   Q39 [Professor Dawson] Back

90   Q45 [Professor Dawson] Back

91   Q89 [Professor Walmsley] Back

92   Q155 [Professor Jones] Back

93   HEFCE (BUF42) para 7 Back

94   Cabinet Office, The Coalition: Our programme for Government, p10 Back

95   Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2012-13, Local Enterprise Partnerships, HC 598 Back

96   BIS, Supporting economic growth through local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones, 2014  Back

97   Q45 [Libby Hackett], Q46 [Dr Bradshaw] and University of Cambridge (BUF57) Back

98   Q45 [Libby Hackett], Q46 [Dr Bradshaw], University of Bristol (BUF40); Russell Group (BUF47)  Back

99   University of Hertfordshire and Hertfordshire LEP (BUF43); Bournemouth University and Dorset LEP (BUF35) Back

100   Engineering Professors Council (BUF41) Back

101   Q46 [Professor Purcell] Back

102   European Commission, Guide to Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisations, 2012, p8 Back

103   Council Regulation (EC) No 1303/2013 Back

104   Council Regulation (EC) No 1303/2013 Back

105   BIS, Making European funding work better for the UK economy, 2013 Back

106   Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) (BUF27) para 59 Back

107   PraxisUnico (BUF15) Back

108   NCUB, David Willetts confirms NCUB to lead Advisory Hub, April 2014 Back

109   Q223 [Antony Harper] Back

110   NCUB (BUF20) Back

111   Q63 [David Docherty] Back

112   Q418 [Greg Clark] Back

113   NCUB, Smart Specialisation Advisory Hub, accessed November 2014 Back

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Prepared 28 December 2014