PraxisUnico responds to the Witty Report

PraxisUnico welcomes Sir Andrew Witty’s report reviewing the contribution of universities to economic growth.  We are pleased Sir Andrew has acknowledged the great contribution UK universities have made to innovation and economic growth over many years, and welcome the challenge to do even better. 

The task is great, and the recommendation of more resources to increase our co-ordinated activity is welcome, particularly if universities are to assume the responsibility for managing the innovative arrow projects.  We are pleased that- as we urged in our submission- the review recognises  the importance of continuing to fuel the excellent research base upon which the universities’ economic contribution is founded if we are to reap the full benefits of our potential.  The addition of this new responsibility is certainly complementary to universities’ existing missions, but should not detract from our continued determination to have so many world-leading universities as measured by our existing research and education activities.  The recommendations to develop a new £1bn funding stream for “arrow” projects and to increase HEIF funding to £250m would represent a significant and welcome commitment by government to support universities in facilitating economic growth, particularly if the majority of the funds are new, but provision within these should also take into account the additional resources and infrastructure universities will require to deliver such initiatives. Greater certainty over the future of the HEIF funding stream is particularly to be welcomed.

We welcome the exhortation to invest European strategic funding in collaborative research and innovation, although we note that the allocations of funding and concentrations of innovation potential are not well correlated.  We would also urge the government to address the still significant barriers to universities making best use of funding, as outlined in our earlier letter to the Rt Hon Michael Fallon.

LEPs will need to work more closely with universities if they are to realise the potential of innovation in their regions and the Report’s recommendations in this area are welcome. We also welcome the recognition of the need for mechanisms to enable collaboration between LEPs and a move away from a postcode-based approach.

We note the importance the Report places on improving access to university research expertise particularly for SMEs, and welcome the inclusion of recommendations designed to promote and facilitate greater engagement between universities and UK industry. However these will need to build on existing best practice both regionally and across the sector, and reflect on the role LEPs and national bodies such as the KTNs can play in helping universities identify and work with the innovative SMEs that would benefit most. In addition there is valuable learning from earlier attempts to create a database of research expertise, particularly about the need to promote its use by businesses. Corresponding initiatives on the demand side will also be needed to raise awareness and stimulate engagement by SMEs, where investment in R&D and work with universities have historically been low. The recommendation of a single point of entry and triage service for SMEs may help with this, particularly if it were to be done by a service which handles a group of universities, perhaps at LEP level. Another suggestion we would like to make is that universities should adopt a common name for such a point of entry, analogous to the sales department in a company which is a universally recognisable name.

There are other things that could be done.  The current TSB review into proof of concept funding will, we hope, recognise the historical success of University Challenge Seed funding as a fruitful focus for investment.  Also, government departments’ terms and conditions for funding research in universities could better support universities’ efforts to use the outputs for economic and social benefit.  Nevertheless, we believe that the review is a significant step forward along the road to the UK deriving greater benefit from our research base.