Use universities to drive economic growth, report urges

Graphene Graphene, the ultra-thin material that won Manchester University scientists a Nobel prize. Now a report urges help for universities to turn ideas into business.

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Universities should be brought into the heart of the economy and funded to stimulate growth, a report is urging.

It says the government should put £1bn into what it calls Arrow Projects, to turn "globally competitive technological ideas into real business".

Current funding streams are too complex, argues author Sir Andrew Witty, boss of GlaxoSmithKline.

The government and the Confederation of British Industry welcomed the report.

John Cridland, director general of the CBI, described Arrow Projects as a "great idea".

Universities Minister David Willetts said the government would consider what recommendations to make following the publication.

"We know that universities are engines of innovation and have an important role to play in driving our industrial strategy," said Mr Willetts.

'Invention revolution'

The report, entitled Encouraging a British Invention Revolution, says the UK is a world leader in technology and invention, adding that "the research strength of the UK's universities in an enormous national asset".

But it warns: "We will have to work hard to maintain our position of strength in the face of increasing competition."

In his foreword, Sir Andrew writes that UK universities have "an extraordinary wealth of ideas, technology and human energy - much of which is world-leading and capable of seeding not just new companies but whole industries".

But without better-focused funding, organisation and collaboration, he says, there is a risk of delay and of "British inventions building foreign industries".

He says a "thicket of complexity" in funding "leads to unnecessary hurdles for those striving to translate ideas to job-creating businesses".

Arrow Projects are his plan for an taking ideas from "mind to factory" with a "globally competitive sense of timing and scale".

If they were successful they "could herald a British invention revolution to rival the transformation witnessed in the 19th Century," Sir Andrew writes.

He envisages the projects as large collaborations in technologically advanced fields. The partners would not necessarily be "geographically co-located", and would include a range of universities - not just leading research institutions - as well as industry, business and local and central government.

The report says the government "will need to create a new funding stream to bring the Arrow Projects into being."

Block grants

This could be composed of both public and private money, from both new or existing sources and delivered perhaps in the form of block grants which would allow project managers to use their judgement as to how it is spent, it says.

Universities and businesses would form themselves into consortiums to bid for the funding. The funding would be channelled through the lead university in each project.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "The future of the UK economy depends upon making the most of the knowledge, innovation and energy to be found in universities. This work is already happening but the report challenges us, quite rightly, to do more."

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of research universities, also welcomed the proposal: "Discoveries at our world-leading, research-intensive universities have generated billions over the years.

"But it's vital for the UK's economy that groundbreaking discoveries make it all the way from idea to implementation and from prototype to profit.

"Collaboration with business is a core part of the mission of all our academics. But we need to bridge the gap and help everyone work together."

Mr Cridland added: "We also need to ensure that more mid-sized and smaller businesses benefit from the huge potential universities bring.

"A single point of entry for companies wishing to engage with universities and a sharper focus on supporting innovation in mid-sized businesses are logical first steps."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    British Universities offer appalling value for money. With low contact time and high fees they cannot compete with the rest of the world.

    Universities claim that they are in financial difficulties. They should try halving salaries of academics and doubling numbers. That would result in much more contact time and better value for money for students.

    If academics don't like it they can resign!

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    The UK should realise that universities are its jewel in its crown. They are one of the things that this country does, and does well. We attract students from all over the world and have a reputation as a world-leader in education. I just hope that the government realises the value of what we have, and doesn't kill off a British world-leading industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    We need some clarity on this topic.
    The CBI likes the idea.. The Government likes the idea..
    Universities like this idea.
    Which one of these three will give a cast iron guarantee of finding anyone a job?
    Or paying anyone compensation for failing to do so?

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    Students in Germany don't pay for studies engineering and the rest of the EU charges significantly less than the UK . Where is the motivation in a science or engineering career which pays less when you have almost £30k to pay back when you graduate?

    The sooner we get rid of mickey mouse courses and reallocate the savings to true value add degrees, the bigger the talent pool we can generate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    In other words the public will pay for the development of new products and the private companies will then reap in the profit? That sounds about as crazy as the public currently paying for house price increases so bankers stay afloat.

    What you really want is funding for students, so we get fully empowered people who drive innovation in the industry, not slaves that produce freebys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    Has anyone ever tracked the career path of our Graduates who attended University in the Seventies ,the Eighties and the Nineties?
    How many of them found better jobs in other countries?
    How many of them have any regrets?
    Which country was glad to employ them?
    Which country had no jobs available

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    So universities are going to focus on inovation instead of education.

    It will be like Premier league football with the home grown talent absolutely smashed by academic mercenaries from all over the globe.

    Once a university is of value to businesses, then they will get privatised.

    This government doesn't do anything that benefits ordinary people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    I completely agree and I used to work within the innovation seeking economy. The problem is that universities in the UK don't get support from business or gvt. What needs to occur is for business to realise that they don't need such a big research or recruitment budget if they work with local universities. Government will also lose less overseas talent to overseas if they can stay here. Growth?

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    technological innovation comes more from failure than success, while there are examples of innovation without failure, in most cases you'll find people failed a load of times before they succeeded & if they hadn't failed first then they wouldn't have succeeded

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    The rich countries in a 100 years may be the ones selling electricity to the Arabs, created by fusion + renewables. Graphene may turn out to be as big as the internal combustion engine or it may not. You've got to be willing to fund failure because you can't be sure what will be a success & that's hard for govt to say we put a load of money in this & it failed but we put money in that & it worked

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    Over 20 years ago I worked for a British company that got privatised and is now expecting the taxpayer to fund the installation of imported equipment that its own research labs were designing when I was there.
    Innovative engineers are feared - science is seen as voodoo!
    I'm not sure what British engineering needs but I know its not British managers, financiers and politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    Harvard still gets significant federal funding -

    Government funded Innovations - radars, microwave ovens, touchscreen, computers, aircraft, the internet, nuclear power, integrated circuits etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    The core of the problem with the UK is that innovation is overwhelmingly dominated by the public sector - NOT ENTREPRENEURS.

    At InnovateUK 2013, a large (£Ms) exhibition organised by UK Trade & Investment and Technology Strategy Board, over 80% of the attendees were from the public sector, and about 10% attending as a favour to UKTI / TSB.

    Guess how much business was done...


  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    You do know Harvard has the largest private endowment in the world for example, and many other elite unis are funded largely privately too. There'd be plenty of funding, from customers and philanthropists, businesses for useful research in a free society.

    Can you explain your claim "Most of the significant innovations in technology have come from government funded research?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    The view that academic skills are more important than technological/manual skills, limits economic growth as students are taken less seriously in industries. The government won’t change this culture as few members of the cabinet hold science/engineering qualifications- explaining why countries like Germany are ahead in turning innovation into production & profit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    Notice how the impartial BBC have not allowed any HYS on any of the recent school debacles that have occurred recently? Looking after their paymasters pretty well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    The more educated and informed a societies members are, the more they realise that so called ' politicians' are an out and out burden rather than a bonus.

    It's always been a struggle but eventually we will win.

    Direct Democracy.

    It's inevitable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    268. Sally
    The funding problems with research and development is not down socialism but with bean counters in a capitalist approach.

    Most of the significant innovations in technology have come from government funded research, which would not happen in a libertarian society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Fair point but economists are not a homogeneous group.
    Some get it right and some get it wrong: not as often as doctors I'm relieved to say.
    It's up to the decision-maker - normally a politician - to obtain advice from several sources, weigh it up and make a decision.
    Economists, certainly those in Government, only advise, and there can be contrary advice.


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