Government-commissioned report calls for a more central economic role for UK universities

Out-Law News | 17 Oct 2013 | 3:26 pm | 2 min. read

The UK's universities need to given a more central economic role if the country is to succeed in turning innovation into successful businesses, a prominent businessman has concluded in a Government-commissioned report.

Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of leading life sciences firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), had been commissioned by the Government to report on how English universities could better support local economic growth and drive exports. His final report makes a number of recommendations, which include reviewing current funding arrangements in order to better target resources to particular research and technology streams, rather than individual institutions.

Universities Minister David Willetts welcomed the report ahead of a more formal Government response, but higher education expert Martin Priestley of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, called on it to take up Witty's challenge and "back one of Britain's global success stories".

"The Witty Review recognises what we have known for a long time: that as well as delivering world class research and teaching, UK universities drive economic growth and have a profound effect on the economies of their local areas," he said. "As the report correctly identifies, UK universities have the potential to be able to turn ideas into globally competitive industries and to create breakthrough inventions."

Witty, who is also the chancellor of Nottingham University, said in his report that the UK had "some of the best universities in the world", giving the country a "major competitive advantage" towards being recognised as a world leader in technology and innovation. By simplifying complex funding streams and doing more to encourage collaborative research, involving small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well other academic institutions with similar expertise, universities could support economic growth by turning "great ideas into successful companies that create jobs", he said.

The report's central recommendation is for the creation of collaborative 'Arrow Projects', supported by a new central government funding stream. These projects would involve cutting-edge technologies or inventions in which the UK has a promising lead, led by an 'arrow tip' of universities with expertise in that particular area working with an 'arrow head' of associated economic activity, including industrial and supply chain partners and economic partners, such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). The team involved in Arrow Projects would not be based on postcode or location, but rather by type of technology such as quantum computing or advanced material.

Under the system that Witty envisages, Arrow Projects would be backed by £1 billion in funding which could be either new money or redirected from existing schemes, much of which could be provided by participating businesses and LEPs. This 'one stop shop' for funding would replace the current regime, which can involve multiple and complex applications depending on where the university is based, or through the Technology Strategy Board and various Research Councils.

"At an early interview session, I was deeply struck by the statement: 'Britain doesn't breed entrepreneurs, it breeds endurance entrepreneurs'," said Witty in the foreword to the report. "The point being that the 'thicket' of complexity that exists between central and local structures and diffusion of funding and advisory energies leads to unnecessary hurdles for those striving to translate ideas to job creating businesses."

"We should embrace the country's density of population and institutions and drive greater collaboration wherever the 'idea flows' - eliminating unnecessary regional barriers which create domestic competition instead of marshalling our resources to run a global race," he said.

The report calls for universities to "assume an explicit responsibility for facilitating economic growth", as part of a 'Third Mission' alongside research and education, and with stronger incentives to encourage this work. They should report annually to Government on their progress and what work is needed by Government to facilitate their economic involvement, it said. It also recommends a closer relationship between LEPs and universities in their area, including the expectation that LEPs should include local university representation on their boards.

Witty has also recommended increasing funding for the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) from £160 million to £250m a year, and reviewing the funding allocation method to incentivise engagement with SMEs. Universities should also put in place a "single point of entry" to engage with SMEs and direct them to the relevant part of the university, he said.