University challenge

Collaboration between academia and business can be an exchange of knowledge from which everyone benefits, argues Prof Tim Wilson.


In March I presented the Regional Research and Development Awards to small businesses. I was looking forward to hearing stories of successful collaboration between these companies and the universities in the region. However, I learnt that fewer than 25 per cent of the businesses had worked with a university and the majority never even thought that they should.

The advantages to be gained from university/business collaboration are enormous. Universities need to promote themselves more effectively to business audiences. Business can and should benefit from the creativity, new thinking and resources available in universities.

Business should be encouraged by recent changes in universities. A new model of a university is being created — one that helps businesses work more effectively with academics and students. These business-facing universities are focusing on mutual knowledge exchange, not one-way knowledge transfer. They are places where business, academics and students are constantly exchanging ideas. The government is recognising the value this new model of a university brings and is actively supporting its emergence.

Business survival depends on innovation. Universities are by their nature centres of enquiry. Research does not have to be led by academic enquiry — it can also be driven by business need. Universities and businesses can collaborate as equal intellectual partners helping to increase innovative capability and secure a better economic future.

Hertfordshire is at the vanguard of this new breed of universities. We describe ourselves as ‘business-facing, business-focused and business-like’ and as ‘a new model of a university’. We run many successful businesses of our own, including UNO, the only university-owned bus company in the UK. We provide incubation services to a wide range of spin-out and spin-in companies.

We still run thriving demand-led Knowledge Transfer Partnerships — with Queen’s Award-winning label design and manufacturing company Silver Fox, as a good example. The company needed help to ensure the stickiness of its safety labels for use in hot climates. Working closely with researchers and scientists it was able to test its product before launching it in overseas markets.

BioPark Hertfordshire is one of our facilities — 80,000 sq ft of state-of-the-art laboratories and offices, dedicated to small companies working in the bio-sciences and health-related industries. Tenants include leading-edge researchers from the biotech industry, spin-out companies from the university, and spin-in companies taking advantage of this cluster of biotech expertise and access to the university’s vast information resources and knowledge base. Some of the business researchers will become visiting professors, while research students support these enterprises and other students gain from work experience. Again, knowledge exchange, not knowledge transfer.

Last year we merged with Exemplas, Hertfordshire’s Business Link. This created new connections between thousands of businesses and the university and has been phenomenally successful. It is popular with our business clients, many of whom have benefited from access to university expertise. We have seen increases in applied research, professional development programmes, numbers of students working in business as part of their studies and growth in graduate employment skills.

Our Business School has piloted an innovative project in which 20 companies, academics and students worked together to analyse markets and develop strategic marketing plans.

In addition to offering companies professional development programmes, short courses, distance learning and masters programmes to support skills improvement, we work with business to provide bespoke support, made possible by modern technology and partnership working. For example, we work with world-leading defence company MBDA, giving its employees the chance to study for an honours degree while working.

Forget the traditional ivory tower thinking of the past. It is time for business to open up to working with universities and for universities to open up to business. Collaboration and knowledge exchange are the way forward. Future competitiveness will be driven by the ability to be creative, to innovate and to build on intellectual strength. Why not investigate what your local university can offer you but also consider what you have to offer?



Tim Wilson is vice-chancellor of Hertfordshire University and deputy chair of the CBI’s Innovation Science and Technology Committee.