UK universities must forge stronger links with business, despite Oxford's success

Even with the University of Oxford knocking Caltech off the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, it appears the UK could be doing more to improve the ways its academic research impacts industry.

For the first time a UK university has topped the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, with the University of Oxford knocking the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from the top spot. The latter had held the position on five occasions. Stanford University in the US was rated third while University of Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology fill the remaining top five positions at fourth and fifth respectively.

At a national level though, it is the Asian countries which stand out (from 24 countries) with 289 in the list and 19 of these making it into the top 200, compared to 15 last year.

The rankings judge the performance of 980 institutions in 79 countries and have been running for 12 years. This year, Oxford improved its performance across the four main indicators of teaching, research, citations and international outlook. Times Higher Education (THE) reports that one of the university’s major advances was in the area of total income and research income, which outstripped the growth of its staff numbers, while its research has also had a greater impact.

The university says the ranking reflects its all-round strength in contemporary research and teaching. Development of new technologies as well as knowledge transfer are among its stated key priorities. And indeed, testimony to how relevant the university and its research are to UK industry is that its researchers have launched more than 70 companies since 2005, more than any other university in the country, helping to establish the Oxford area as one of the most innovative in the UK.

Clearly not all UK universities and their research are impacting as well as they could, though. The rankings show that in the industry income indicator, the UK still lags behind other nations with no universities in the top 100. Imperial College London achieved the highest score in this area, sharing 126th position with the University of Adelaide.

To assess performance in this area, the rankings use research grant and contract income from industry, commerce and public corporation sources. In some cases, this is available via public information sources but often it is supplied by universities and may often be checked against public financial filings, where these are available. THE says this income has been increasing over the past few years.

Despite this year’s findings though, THE World University Rankings editor, Phil Baty, reckons UK universities have been improving in industry income in recent years. He explains that interactions between universities and the economy in the country increased in volume by 10 per cent between 2012-13 and 2013-14 through activities such as collaborative and contract research, consultancy and intellectual property income.

"Figures released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England last year suggest that the worth of these partnerships grew by £300m to £3.9bn during the same period," he said. "But other countries have been working on this 'third mission' activity for much longer. For example, France's engineering schools have a long history of collaborating with industry, while universities in the US have been more successful at attracting private funds.

"Most of the UK's universities are public institutions and have therefore heavily relied on state income so traditionally there has been less of a focus on gaining revenue from other streams. As government funding for universities has declined, this third mission activity has become increasingly important for UK institutions. There has also been more collaboration in this area since universities have focused more on producing employable graduates."

Anecdotally, THE says it is aware that in other countries the structural links between universities and commercial organisations are much stronger and the obvious way to improve in this area is for UK universities to focus on finding ways to work more closely with industry.

Universities UK, the voice of universities, claims the UK’s performance is actually "quite good relative to investment in R&D" though. A spokesperson points out that the Higher Education-Business and Community Interaction Survey (HEBCIS) data generally shows that universities have been getting better on income growth from business and industry, while a range of other indicators suggest that UK performance in innovation and knowledge exchange has been good in the past few years, and is improving.  

"The fact that the UK does well in attracting industry research income compared to overall spend can also be seen in the international comparative analysis included in the latest HE-BCI report," says Universities UK.

"This shows that the proportion of research income received from industry is similar in the UK and the US (7 per cent vs 7.1 per cent), and both have a substantial lead on this over Japan (2.2 per cent)."

There is no doubt, though, that whatever the viewpoint on the UK’s current standing in this area, forging stronger links with industry has to be high on any university’s agenda. With digital transformation a hot topic in the business world and the need for innovative thinking and fresh approaches to challenges across all sectors, technology and engineering faculties are among the best placed to make an impact with their research projects and help UK businesses to achieve competitive edge.

Professor Mehmet Karamanoglu, design engineering and mathematics head of department at Middlesex University, says it has "consciously built an outlook that is industry focused" and developed academic provision that prepares its students to be work ready. "This required close but long-term relationship building with industry partners," he explained.  

"The impact of this is paying dividends in collaborative research projects with industry, joint ventures as well as developing academic provision and industry standard facilities to support such provision," he continued. "Developing such relationships is not only in certain pockets but across the subject areas in the university.

"We have long-standing relationships with large organisations including Festo, Siemens, National Instruments as well as the Department for Transport and we are very pleased with the progress which we have made over the past few years."

Oxford Brookes University is similarly extremely active in forging links with industry. Professor Gareth Neighbour, head of the department of mechanical engineering and mathematics, explained that it also maximises the benefits of its location for this: "At Oxford Brookes, we are fortunate to be uniquely positioned in Oxfordshire, at the centre of the hub for clean automotive and related industries which enhances the work we do."

Claytex, which specialises in systems engineering solutions, is one of the companies which Oxford Brookes works with. Chief engineer Alessandro Picarelli explained that it is currently supporting students in a group project for Dallara Automobili, which designs chassis mainly for race cars.  

"Many universities have relationships with car manufacturers. What we do is something heavily used in motorsport so makes it extremely relevant for people at Oxford Brookes. We’re supporting them with the design and development of an electric racing car, which we’re building on year on year and will ultimately be tested in the driver simulator at Dallara.

"The relationship with the university is valuable for two reasons: as a way of promoting new ways of approaching the development of vehicles but also being able to support students on Masters projects, which then makes them more employable for us if we need to increase staff."

Claytex has recruited two graduates from the university. It also works with Cranfield University and the Warwick Manufacturing Group, part of the University of Warwick, which provides innovative solutions to industry, through research, education and collaboration. Claytex is currently supporting a PHD student in three-way relationship with Jaguar Land Rover. "The work provides us with useful information on future vehicle technologies, in particular electrified mobility thermal management," said Picarelli.

Ultimately, of course, any increased focus on linking with industry is going to be good news for students, not just rankings. "This provides excellent, further opportunities for students such as industry placements," said Professor Neighbour. "And our research-led programmes develop practitioner skills and place students in a competitive position to secure their desired career path."

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