PraxisUnico responds to the Wilson Review

29 February 2012

The Wilson Review commences with a quote from Lord Dearing, \"Just as castles provided the source of strength for medieval towns, and factories provided prosperity in the industrial age, universities are the source of strength in the knowledge-based economy of the twenty-first century.\" Nearing the end of the Review Sir Tim concludes \"However, in the broader aspects of economic growth, the global reputation of UK universities remains underexploited.\"

PraxisUnico agrees wholeheartedly that the global reputation of UK universities can provide more towards UK plc if the university system is truly placed at the heart of the knowledge economy and we welcome the Wilson Review as another step in the right direction. 

For anyone wishing to gain an understanding of university interaction with business there would be few better places to start than this review.  It is wide-ranging, balanced and considered.  Rather than make a series of declarative recommendations to rattle cages it focuses on asking many of the actors, including universities, to consider their position and whether they are delivering best value for the benefits of UK plc.  If used wisely, by many, the Review has a positive contribution to make to university-business interaction.

Much of the Review covers areas well beyond PraxisUnico's sphere of activity.  In those areas in which our members are active we would make the following comments.

PraxisUnico would wholeheartedly endorse the following statement, \"For UK universities to take their place as world leaders in business support and interaction, we need a new covenant between business and universities: a covenant that generates partnerships and collaboration, a covenant that can only be achieved through greater communication and understanding\".  More effective communication is essential.  The debates that arise over intellectual property and its valuation often have their roots in ineffective sharing of information between a business and a university.

The Review contains some startling home truths that are worth many remembering.  The relationship is multi-dimensional and there are over 140 universities working with 10s of 1,000s of businesses.

The report recommends a clear role for CIHE as an independent repository of information on university-business interaction. PraxisUnico is already working with CIHE through one of its working groups; we are keen to broaden and deepen that relationship.

PraxisUnico echoes the concerns expressed with regard to the postgraduate system in the UK, and the possible effect arising from the change in England to the undergraduate fee regime.  The postgraduate schemes are often highly productive in developing relationships with business and often lead to more substantive relationships.

Inward investment is clearly important to the UK, and the importance for research is underlined by a recent CIHE study.   The suggestion that BIS and UKTI should reflect on mechanisms to support international investment in the university research base, and to work more closely with universities, is to be welcomed.  This is critical if we are to ensure that such inward investment is fully exploited in the context of economic growth in the UK.  For too long, in PraxisUnico experience, the effective involvement of the university community in inward investment by UKTI has been very patchy.  Recent changes at UKTI show some signs of improvement.  We would suggest going even further, particularly with the demise of RDAs, and ensuring that a significant unit in UKTI understands and engages frequently with the university sector with a strong research focus.

There are a few points in the report where we might wish it to have taken a slightly different approach. For example, in chapter 5 reference is made to the comparison between the £1.7bn of research revenues generated by universities from industry and the third sector compared to the the £84m of revenues generated from IP through licensing.  There is a danger that this will make many think that IP transactions are of little value. However, the economic impact of such IP transactions is what really matters, not the revenues to the university sector. If we made an assumption that such IP transactions represented revenues from royalties on products and assumed an average royalty of 2% then the volume of direct economic impact generated by such IP transactions is £4.2bn!

We welcome the focus in chapter 5 on postdoctoral researchers and postgraduate students.  PraxisUnico believes that this community is very important.  Interaction with high technology businesses under the KTP scheme would be enhanced if this could be undertaken at the postdoctoral level.  Providing more opportunities for secondments and skills development at this level are also critical if the UK wishes to gain significantly from its investment in the research base.  Only 1 in 8 of these postdoctoral researchers secure an academic position in a university and they represent a major untapped resource in interactions with business, as well as recognising their potentially significant role in spin-out company activity.  The comments made with regard to immigration controls are also critical in this regard.  The UKBA needs to take a fuller and broader perspective on the economic gains which the university sector deliver to UK plc.

We also welcome the suggestion that the Innovation Vouchers scheme should be re-vitalised.  We do, however, wonder why the Review does not recommend that this scheme is devolved to universities or university consortia.  The sums of funding are small.

There are many examples of very efficient delivery of support to business by empowering the university sector to engage directly.  Some universities are using ERDF, or their HEIF resources, to deliver such schemes and the scale of what could be achieved is limited only by the resources available.  There is a need to empower universities and businesses directly to enable engagement-making public interventions swift and effective.

The Review is an effective contribution to the discussion.  It wisely has avoided overly simplistic solutions.  It is a call to arms for many to act.  The question remains as to what the governmental response will be, and irrespective of that, how many universities, agencies, businesses and government departments will take this opportunity to re-examine their activities.  PraxisUnico for one will be.

Dr Douglas Robertson, PraxisUnico Chair and Director of Research & Enterprise Services, Newcastle University


29 February 2012


Click here to read The Wilson Review