From Plinth to Pillar
Three or four decades ago it was universally acknowledged that the main role of universities was to educate students and conduct research.
Three or four decades ago it was universally acknowledged that the main role of universities was to educate students and conduct research. The ‘D’ part of R&D was firmly the domain of business and industry, and the job of taking research into society, or to the market, was largely left to others. Of course, there were always enthusiasts who worked with businesses, or even founded their own, but they were few and far between.
However, around that time there was talk of a “third mission”: that universities should invest time and energy in taking the ideas they generated and using them to make a difference. Academics who wanted to see their ideas fully realised increasingly recognised that they had to put in effort to take them forward and they called on universities for support. Research contracting support services, business engagement teams and technology transfer offices were created, professional staff with commercial and legal experience were hired, and the transformation of the role of universities gathered pace.
Educators also began to consider more deeply how to equip their graduates for careers beyond academia. Future employers require both knowledge and skills, and increasingly universities are responding strongly to growing demand from students to support their entrepreneurial aspirations. More students than ever before want to start their own businesses either when they graduate or shortly afterwards, and universities are acknowledging this with training, access to investment, incubators, and accelerator programmes.
Universities also do an enormous amount to support those already in the world of work through CPD programmes and part-time Doctoral provision, these are both crucial for driving forward innovations and improvements in professional practice. For example, Anglia Ruskin University is a lead partner, with NHS England and NHS Improvement, delivering the world’s largest healthcare entrepreneurship programme. This helps clinicians and healthcare professionals gain invaluable commercial skills, knowledge, and experience to bring their ideas and innovation into reality.
Putting this together, universities have transformed themselves into engines of innovation that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago. Of course, universities have always had an impact on the economy; for example, the Oxfordshire economy is populated with companies founded by members of the universities stretching back to Oxford Instruments in 1959. The difference is that rather than passively allowing these things to happen, universities are now determinedly setting about the task of making a difference across all disciplines and are providing support for innovation and entrepreneurship through all parts of the academic community.
University innovation centres, tech transfer offices and business partnerships teams are now an integrated and essential part of university operations; entrepreneurship and mentoring programmes are commonplace; and a consistent interplay between business and academia has become a normal expectation rather than an infrequent occurrence.
The pandemic has brought many challenges which have been eased by pioneering innovations coming out of universities such as rapid testing kits, ventilation equipment, and even an app to help people avoid crowded places. SMEs have felt the strain and university business support programmes, such as the KEEP+ partnership led by Anglia Ruskin University, have been important in helping businesses access talent and academic expertise to sustain further growth.
As charities, universities are committed to work for public benefit, and commercialisation of research and support for entrepreneurs includes a commitment to social enterprise and social action. A recent well-known example is the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine where the partners eschewed profit maximisation in favour of a low cost, globally distributed vaccine.
Universities are becoming more focused on how to support social ventures, which have rarely attracted the amount of financial backing afforded to more traditional spinouts and startups. Earlier this year, Impact 12, a 10 year multi-million pound investment fund, was launched to support and accelerate the social ventures of 12 universities who are collaborating to find solutions to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The fund will support up to fifteen social ventures from across the partner universities, with both seed and follow-on funding over the next ten years.
Three years ago, when we started looking at the impact of the nine Arc universities collectively their combined economic impact in the UK totalled £13bn. A more recent impact study of Oxford University alone has topped that. Things change quickly. This is indeed evidence of the role of universities in the engine room of the economy.
Arc universities are founding businesses at an increasing rate. Oxford alone spun out 31 companies last year and attracted £1.1bn investment. Cambridge has experienced similar growth, and across the board, Arc universities are engaging with and launching businesses at an increasing rate. These businesses are often knowledge driven and grow rapidly, and are part of the reason why the UK can aspire to be a knowledge superpower.
Clearly university research, knowledge exchange and innovation make an enormous contribution to the prosperity of the UK. This can only be strengthened by collaborative working such as the visionary programmes being implemented by the Arc Universities Group. These include zero carbon aviation, advanced therapeutics and space technologies, and will create jobs and businesses, as well as contribute to a low carbon, healthy economy. Universities are linchpins of the innovation districts within the Arc region, generating essential research, skills and innovation to support inclusive and resilient growth across the region, and beyond.