What will be in the Spinouts Review and how should the sector respond?

The Government’s Independent Review of Spinouts is likely to report this month. What will it say? And what will it mean for the Knowledge Exchange community? David Russell, CEO of PraxisAuril, provides valuable insight into the review process and looks forward to the opportunities it will bring for the sector. 


The Government’s Independent Review of Spinouts is likely to report this month. I expect publication both of the review itself and of the Government’s response by the time of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement at the latest.

What will it say?  And what will it mean for the Knowledge Exchange community?

I have no secret inside track on the review – and anyone who tells you they do is fooling either themselves or other people. But I have been closely involved in three high profile Government-commissioned reviews and their official responses over the years: the Leitch Review of Skills (for Gordon Brown), the Wolf Review of Vocational Education (for Michael Gove) and the Richards Review of Apprenticeships (for Gove and Vince Cable).  So I have a fair idea of how this work will be playing out behind the scenes.

As I travel around the country talking to PraxisAuril members, I have encountered two main responses to the Review. One is a certain degree of jaded exasperation (“what another review?!”); the other is a level of anxiety about what the review might say and whether it will be overly influenced by vocal critics of universities and their spinout records.

I think neither of these reactions are well-founded, and that there will probably be good reasons for our sector to welcome this review and its findings. How can I say this in advance of publication? Well, a few general observations about independent reviews might be of interest.

1. A Review can be a vehicle for Government action; or a substitute for it

It is true that Governments often use independent reviews to help them drive policy further and faster than it would otherwise move. An independent review led by the right people can create the policy space, the analytical resource and the stakeholder engagement needed to set out a bold policy agenda and get broad buy-in to it. But equally it can be a way of neutralising persistent pressure from one political faction or set of stakeholders. If you are constantly being needled to enact certain reforms but you are unsure of their wisdom, a well-constituted independent review can create the right forum for looking closely at the issue and examining constructive alternatives to the problem.

2. 'Independent' is a relative term, but a very useful one 

Ministers and officials are often at pains to emphasise the independence of their reviewers, and the Spinouts Review is no different. After all, there is no point in enticing some Big Beasts into the policy arena and then keeping them visibly on a short leash. But in truth an independent review cannot make recommendations that the Government of the day finds unpalatable. I have seen one instance where this was the result (none of the three reviews mentioned above, this one will remain nameless!). It spells disaster for the credibility of the Reviewer and for progress in the policy area, as Government simply will not publish a report it finds unhelpful. This means that while a review has the independence to float reforms that officials might never have recommended under their own steam, they will always be carefully worded to ensure decision-making power remains firmly with Ministers (eg. “the Government should seriously consider doing X,Y and Z” or “the Government should look again at the problem of X and take action to address it somewhere on a spectrum between A and E”). This is turn allows the Government to show that it has been completely open-minded in its approach, allowed independent reviewers free reign to float radical ideas, but ultimately can put some presentational space between Review and Response to preserve the sanity and workability of the detail of public policy.

3. The commissioners of a Review don't get a free pass from the Prime Minister 

It is important to take a short detour here into the inner working of Government. Any document such as a Government Response to a Review, even if written by one or two departments only, has to be cleared by the whole of Government. It is not possible for an activist Secretary of State (or even Chancellor) to use an independent review to push through their own personal policy agenda. There are cross-departmental structures called Cabinet Committees that must approve all significant policy announcements, they are all chaired by the PM or Deputy PM, and they will withhold approval until they are happy that every part of Government can live with the policy. It is a powerful part of our Collective Responsibility system of government, and on the whole it works very well and prevents private peeves or passions becoming public policy. 

4. The Civil Service machine is more impressive than you may think 

On my travels around the sector I have heard voiced more than once a certain condescension towards the civil service, usually based on the belief that they don’t know much about KE, tech transfer or commercialisation, and so are liable to come up with something daft if left alone too much. This is a mistake. It is true that an official in Whitehall can never have the deep professional experience of someone who has been spinning out successful business from university research for 25 years; but one thing the Whitehall machine is excellent at is assimilating many other people’s knowledge and understanding and identifying the big picture that emerges from it. Above all, the civil service has a powerful bias towards evidence-based policy, and in the case of this review it has access not only to some very smart policy officials, but also a wealth of in or near-sector experience across UKRI, RE and the PraxisAuril community. They will see self-interested critics bandying about partial data and skewed surveys for what they are: stakeholders to be managed, not gurus to be followed.

5. Reviews are always opportunities more than they are threats 

There is a natural tendency for those working in any sector or profession to worry about having their world turned upside down by the latest Review or policy response. But in truth even the most powerful and sticky review is only a time-limited intervention into an ecosystem that it does not control. What actually happens in a sector once the dust has settled and the reviewers have gone back to their day jobs depends entirely upon the professionals working in that sector. Only the most self-satisfied – or self-deluded – practitioner in KE would believe that there is nothing we can improve upon in our nascent profession. Therefore we should stand ready to seize upon any new recommendations with gusto and use the momentum they generate to help us with our own improvement agenda.  Almost any recommendation stands or falls on the quality and detail of its implementation, and that will fall to us in the KE sector, and to PraxisAuril as the sector’s professional body, as well as other stakeholders. 

In summary, the Spinouts Review is likely to represent a great opportunity for our sector to show we can absorb evidence-based critique and take hold of a positive reform agenda to improve the quality and impact of our work. The Government response to the Spinouts Review is almost certain to be measured, constructive and evidence-led, and we in the KE community should stand ready to embrace it and take forward its findings in a positive and collegiate way.