The business of ideas

Where once they may have been looked down on, the links between academia and industry at the University of Cambridge are now positively thriving

The path to true love never did run smooth – and this seems to be as much the case with institutional relationships as human ones.

“When I was at university, there was virtually no link between Cambridge and the business world,” says the former Business Secretary and Cambridge alumnus, Dr Vince Cable. He recalls “an apartheid” between industry and higher education in which universities “regarded business with a certain amount of disdain”.

Today, things are changing rapidly. “I think relationships are strengthening,” says Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

Burgeoning romances include “live” projects set for students by companies, and periods of work experience undertaken for course credits as part of a degree. On “sandwich” degree programmes, up to an entire year is dedicated to undergraduates gaining relevant experience in the workplace. These are now commonplace.

“At Aston University, 75 per cent of our undergraduates take a placement year,” Vice-Chancellor Dame Julia King told Radio 4’s Today programme in December. The benefits are clear: “On average, those students will get half a degree grade better in their final degree because they come back more motivated. We know it makes a difference to their employability – and it teaches them the things we find quite hard such as getting in on time and how to answer a phone in a professional environment.”

There’s also an ever-broadening range of vocational degree programmes available at UK institutions, from fashion design to aeronautical engineering. “In the past, it’s been far more common to think of vocational education and university as very different paths,” says the former Conservative universities minister David Willetts. “But universities can deliver vocational education to a high level too – nursing, for example.”

New on the scene, meanwhile, is a love triangle that unites further education and work with universities. In 2014, Aston launched a five-year course that enables Higher Apprentices to progress to the second year of a degree. This programme is taught and delivered almost entirely in the workplace, run in conjunction with the computer-systems company Capgemini UK.


The university as incubator

Enterprise and entrepreneurship are also being embraced, with university-based business incubators and services that help researchers protect and share their ideas. Launched in 2006, Cambridge Enterprise (CE) is a subsidiary of Cambridge University that creates links with industry, helping staff and students take their ideas and expertise to market.

“Our role is to support the academic community in commercialising their research,” explains Chief Executive Tony Raven. One way of achieving this is by harnessing tacit knowledge, protecting academics’ ideas with patents and enabling them to share their knowledge with organisations as consults.

Raven makes the point that academic research is essential to the future of business and industry. “Lying on my desk is a thing called the iPhone,” he says. “That was the idea of a maverick entrepreneur called Steve Jobs who didn’t work in the mobile phone industry but saw a way of revolutionising it. To put it another way: you don’t invent the light bulb by researching better candles. If you work at a candle company, you might know everything there is to know about wax and string, but you probably don’t have the skills to contemplate something that involves glass and vacuums and electricity and wires.”

Another example of how university research can benefit society comes courtesy of Cambridge alumnus Sir Greg Winter, the Master of Trinity College who developed a range of humanised monoclonal antibody drugs now known as Humera. “Initially, he couldn’t get the pharmaceutical industry interested,” says Tony Raven, “but today his techniques are involved in six of the top ten selling antibody drugs in the world.”

University research, says Raven, is about coming up with ground-breaking ideas, which is why CE helps academics navigate those voyages of discovery. “We take on the early risk, putting money and support in place to enable academics to prove that their idea is viable and has traction in the marketplace. We set up companies, and we’ve seen many of those ultimately acquired by larger companies.”


Spinning in and spinning out

Broadly speaking, there are two models used by universities. Bigger institutions like the University of Cambridge will often use a “spin-out” model of enterprise, where an undergrad, research student or professor will come up with a brilliant and enterprising idea. He or she will then take it out of the university and market it, usually via an external company, all the time retaining intellectual property rights.

Other smaller but more enterprising universities like Huddersfield, Aberystwyth and Loughborough specialise in what’s known as a “spin-in” model, where small- and medium-sized local businesses are encouraged to come onto the campus and, for a cost, use the expertise of various university departments for the design and marketing of a new product.

“Many local SMEs can’t afford capital-intensive equipment,” says Professor Liz Towns-Andrews, Director of Research at the University of Huddersfield. “We know, through demand studies, what kind of technology they require, so we’ve secured the kind of capital equipment that has a practical application – be it 3D printers, computer-assisted-design, bio-medical research, and so on. And we’ve put in place mechanisms through which businesses can access this equipment.”

One Huddersfield business, Paxman Coolers, was developing scalp coolers to reduce hair loss for people undergoing chemotherapy, and were able to take advantage of the University of Huddersfield’s 3D printing technology, in tandem with students and academics. Another “spin-in” partnership was with the Leeds-based Ginetta, a historic maker of high-performance sports cars. Ginetta used the university’s designers to create a three-dimensional scaled model of a particular car along with a high-quality promotional film, before the car had even been built, helping the car company sell dozens of very expensive vehicles. “Crucially, that design modelling was done by our arts department,” says Professor Towns-Andrews, “which shows that it’s not just the sciences that can have a fruitful relationship with business.”

Of course, some academic fields – science and technology among them – are more obviously suited to this enterprising approach than others. “However, one of my focuses has been making sure this is a cross-university activity,” says Raven. A University of Cambridge music student, for example, recently applied artificial intelligence to composition, creating Jukedeck, a company that provides copyright-free music for online video. Then there’s the company started by an academic in the Cambridge University Department of Psychology and Faculty of Divinity, whose research works to defuse conflict among radicalised youth. “Demand got to the point where the service couldn’t be provided by the academic community alone,” he says, “so we set up a not-for-profit company on a franchise model that trains people to deliver consultancy.”


Supporting enterprise

Other bodies within Cambridge University support enterprising ideas in other ways. The Cambridge Judge Business School seeks to engage thinking from both academia and professional practice and apply that combined knowledge to business situations. A number of research collaborations are also run together with industry, while Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE) runs a successful business creation competition, and Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club (CUTEC) hopes to inspire, enrich and connect entrepreneurially-minded people.

Throughout the UK, industry and higher education are knitting ever more closely together – but it would be wrong to suggest this is a new concept. “The mission statement of the University of Cambridge is ‘to contribute to society’,” says Raven, “and that’s been going on for centuries. Cambridge University Press, for example, was set up in 1534.”

More broadly, however, the idea didn’t really catch on until late in the 20th century. Over at the University of Warwick, an academic department and leading research group called WMG (originally the Warwick Manufacturing Group), was founded in 1980 to help reinvigorate UK manufacturing, improve organisations’ competitiveness through innovation, and develop new technologies and skills. Initially unpopular and controversial, WMG is now regarded as an international model for how universities and business can successfully work together.

Likewise, Raven points out that CE has existed in some form or another since the mid-1970s. What has changed, he says, is scale and focus. “The university’s approach previously was that it didn’t support collaborations with businesses, but it didn’t get in the way of them happening either,” he says. “It’s now gone from benign neglect to active support.”

Employers are taking the initiative too, making greater efforts to align themselves with universities and students. A recent study by High Fliers Research, The Graduate Market in 2016, finds that more than 90 per cent of the UK’s 100 leading graduate employers now offer paid work experience programmes for students and recent graduates. Further, they are offering a record number of paid internships, vacation work experience and course placements in 2016.

At least half of the employers surveyed offer industrial placements for undergraduates too, typically lasting six to 12 months as part of a degree course. And such experience converts into jobs; recruiters confirmed that they expect a third of this year’s full-time graduate positions to be filled by people who have already spent time with their organisation, either through internships, placements or vacation work. The gap between academia and industry is narrowing.


Learning for its own sake?

But is this always to the good? In the push towards industry-centred education, it could be argued that we are abandoning the idea of learning “for learning’s sake” and compromising creativity, quantifying education by its potential for profitability.

“It’s a question of degree,” says Stephen Isherwood. “And, actually, the public sector is a big employer of graduates, so we’re not just talking about profit-driven corporates, we’re looking at the whole world of employment. Should every course have a panel of employers dissecting pedagogy? No. But education should be engaged, and should be asking what mechanisms will work. The answers for an engineering degree will be different to those for IT degree, law or history.” Employers are realistic, he adds. “Most don’t expect universities to become production lines, generating identikit graduates. In fact, they often want graduates specifically because of their ability to think and the fact that they can bring something new to the organisation.”

As for the sea-change of thought, “I wouldn’t say it’s universally held,” says Isherwood. “There is still a voice among certain academics that they’re not there to produce graduates for UK plc – but I think it’s decreasing, and that’s partly driven by league tables showing employability outcomes. Universities now charge undergraduates up to £9,000 a year, so they need to provide services that match that investment.”

Alice Frost, Head of Knowledge Exchange at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), echoes this. “Two things recently came together; the introduction of high-end student fees, and the depression in the graduate labour market,” she says. “Universities grew more concerned with supporting students, and students became more interested in improving their work chances. That brought increased entrepreneurship – which is the support universities give to students and academics to launch start-ups – increased industry links as a means to develop employability skills, and more social enterprise.”

“The days of lifetime employment with one company have gone,” says Tony Raven. “People are now thinking about careers as portfolios during which they will go in and out of conventional employment into entrepreneurship and other things. They are much more alert to the spectrum of opportunities. At the same time, entrepreneurship has become respectable, so there’s less parental pressure to get a ‘proper job’. At recruitment fairs, you used to see big companies. Now, there are lots of smaller companies too, particularly in the technology space, that are recruiting and getting lots of attention – and our student entrepreneurs clubs are some of the biggest in the university.”

Stephen Isherwood adds that, by linking with industry, universities not only improve students’ employability and entrepreneurial nous, but also gain a greater understanding of the workplace. “Knowledge goes back into the university, and that should improve development of teaching,” he says. “But it isn’t a binary conversation where you can say universities should do ‘x’ and employers should expect ‘y’. It’s about enhanced engagement across the spectrum leading to better outcomes for young people and making the UK more productive.”


A bright future

The future looks bright for these new relationships, with financial support available from the Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) scheme, delivered by HEFCE. “Universities deploy HEIF money to optimise links with the economy and society and to make connections with the wider world,” says Alice Frost. “They may use it for research links, it may be student entrepreneurship, it may be teaching links. About 100 universities receive it, and they’re quite a diverse bunch – so what Cambridge does with the funding will be very different from Coventry University or the Arts University London or Bishops Grosseteste.”

Asked why the fund was established, Frost says: “I think there was a recognition that there was an opportunity being missed. The 1993 Science and Technology White Paper said there ought to be stronger links and better interplay. Some of that came from academics who said this linear model – where universities do fundamental research, patent it and give it to industry – isn’t how innovative processes work. They highlighted the need for a two-way flowing traffic of knowledge, and that brought a more interactive approach.”

Continuing with this, in 2013, the coalition government commissioned an investigation into how universities could play a more direct role in supporting businesses. The resulting report placed great importance on collaboration, noting “an extraordinary potential to enhance economic growth”. Today, links between businesses and universities reside at the heart of the Higher Education Green Paper that was published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in November 2015.

“Part of what that paper is trying to achieve,” says Stephen Isherwood, “is graduates getting into the right level of work, employers becoming more engaged in the education system, and the considerations of employers being linked to higher education in the future.” So, while this love story has seen many ups and downs, employers and higher education could now find themselves united for the long term, and to their mutual benefit.