HE-BCI headlines: what does the data tell us?

Earlier this year I reflected on the 2017-18 HE-BCI data published by HESA; mentioning the step forward in terms of its presentation as an Open Data set and the bonus FAQs for the more straightforward queries. But I also pointed out how the data can reveal the unexpected and how it is hard to understand the real dynamics, or stories, behind the data sets. In particular, I noted that although the data provides an important snapshot of university knowledge exchange (KE), it’s increasingly recognised that data for KE needs to be more diverse in order to provide a better understanding of KE dynamics within research organisations and with their collaborators. So, as many of our members consider how to respond to the current HESA consultation on the HEBCI data, we thought we would republish the article (see below). You can find similar thoughts in the SpinoutsUK Quarterly Journal June 2019 by OUI's Adam Stotten, who delves into the 'HEBCI fruit basket'. 

The HESA consultation closes on Wednesday 11th December, full details available on the website.  


Policy newsletter, April 2019 

The 2017-18 HE Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) data was released last week by HESA and showed year-on-year increases in almost all categories (consultancy income showed a small drop overall) bringing total UK university-business income to a record £4.5 billion. As Sean Fielding, PraxisAuril Chair said at the time these figures are a “vote of confidence in university expertise and know-how” and demonstrate that the sector is strong even in what we know are difficult economic and political times. PraxisAuril members should feel proud of the role they play in achieving those figures: a contribution which often goes unnoticed (especially when it’s all going well!).

This year, HESA has provided some quick links to frequently asked questions about the data, which is useful, as well as a complete list of all tables which means you can target areas of interest. This is a step forward in presenting a huge data set but the numbers still need a good degree of contextual understanding to make sense of the figures overall, by category and by institution. For example, almost 60% of IP income for Northern Ireland comes from the sale of shares at Queens University Belfast – the perfect example of a data spike, which this category is particularly prone to.

But looking through the HE-BCI data always reveals something unexpected that makes you take a closer look. This year, Staffordshire university returned the highest number of newly registered staff start-ups and accounted for 25% of the UK total in that category. Growing from under 5 per year to 27 surely points to a deliberate change of KE policy, staff incentive or perhaps is reflective of new expertise in the KE team supporting this activity: it certainly begs the question. In the same category, Cambridge has the most staff start-ups still active, while Strathclyde’s staff start-ups employ a whopping 1,164 people: over 5 times more than the next highest. If we’re looking for good practice in this area, maybe these are the universities we should ask. 

Sticking with spin-offs, since that’s a popular focus for policymakers and commentators, Graduate start-up numbers are large and increasing year-on-year in terms of active firms. For new start-ups in 2017/18, numbers are dominated by the Royal College of Art, University of the Arts, Kingston University and Uni Central Lancashire – the latter topping the table for the highest total of active firms (972).

Estimated external investment in spin-offs has reached a record level of £1.4 billion (from £970 million) demonstrating how universities are responding to expectations from Government to drive economic growth, create jobs and increase R&D levels in the UK. It’s a particularly welcome rise because investment in spin-offs is challenging and a hot topic among PraxisAuril members. But even this headline figure is not straightforward because it’s not a single category type: it includes investment for non-HEP owned spin-offs, for staff start-ups, for graduate start-ups and for social enterprises. Almost all categories return a different leader board: Oxford leads on HEP-owned spin-offs and grad start-ups, Queens University Belfast on non-HEP owned spin-offs, Manchester on staff start-ups and RCA on Social Enterprises. 

I’ll point out before others do that the number of spin-offs with some HEP ownership created companies in the period has fallen slightly from 131 in 2016/17 to 125 in 2017/18. There are only around 40 UK universities contributing to this category, with a long tail beyond the top five each year which account about 45% of the total (extend to top 10 and it’s 60% of the total). But when all other metrics associated with spin-offs – employment, turnover and investment – have risen along with the number of active firms it shows how focusing on one number can mask what is actually a very positive picture overall.  

Smarter data

The HE-BCI data forms the basis of proposed KEF metrics and will also be subject to review and consultation this year. The data provides an important snapshot of university knowledge exchange (KE) but it’s increasingly recognised that data for KE needs to be more diverse in order to provide a better understanding of KE dynamics within research organisations and with their collaborators. There is, in particular, a need to recognise low or non-income driven outcomes and impacts.

When it comes to spin-offs, we should advocate a better understanding of the dynamics in different disciplines and industry sectors as the analysis of BBSRC spin-out companies led by Alex Chaix, Joint Head of Knowledge Exchange & Commercialisation at UKRI, demonstrated recently. One key message from this paper is about the power of combining data sets – in this case, BBSRC research grants data, ResearchFish® listed spinouts, and IPO published patents data – to make sense of complex environments. There are other equally important messages concerning timescales for company creation, the methods of IP protection, and the fact that patents only dominate in certain fields. The authors conclude that “patenting is a business decision” and research funders need to keep a broad funding perspective for basic research that will maintain the pipeline for future spin-offs of different kinds whether patent protected or not. We know this and have stated as much in our policy responses for some time now. But it is really important to have evidence like this to drive home the points we make. I hope that other Research Councils will follow-suit and that as a result, we will all understand more about research to market innovation.