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May 23, 2013

The Art of Partnership

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Image. University of Southampton WSA Degree Show Preparation 2008

A blog post by Dame Helen Alexander, Chancellor of the University of Southampton

The greatest collaborations between industry and universities involve true partnership. Developing these partnerships, however, is a slow process, and needs to be carefully nurtured.

The University of Southampton, where I am chancellor, experiences the whole range of interactions with business at regional, national and international levels. The first, and the hardest to quantify, is the production of highly educated and trained people. Degree programmes and professional training all develop people with the skills and qualities which businesses need. As with many universities, there are companies who rely on our university to produce the graduates they require, and many work with us on developing the curricula or offering work experience.

Companies with good experience of a university, and the graduates it produces, often take the next step in the relationship; they identify individual projects where the university can help their business to develop further. To be successful, universities must see such contract research as a key part of their mission. They need both academic staff who understand and can deliver to business requirements and timescales, and processes which make such contract research easier to deliver within a busy university environment. The universities who are best at doing this, Southampton included, have developed this capability over many decades. They need staff with significant experience in working with companies, and often have dedicated units for contract research. It is essential that these units stay deeply connected to the rest of the university, and can draw upon expertise from across the disciplines.

True partnerships between companies and universities come after many years of working together, where a synergy develops as both sides understand the other’s needs. Sometimes the company in question has a standard model for how to do this. Rolls Royce, for instance, has established University Technology Centres in higher education institutions (HEIs) across the world, each focussing on a different set of technological or engineering problems. The University of Southampton hosts two such centres (in gas turbine noise and computational engineering). Other major companies such as Microsoft, BAE and Unilever do the same.

The strongest partnerships of all are achieved when a company and a university find they are almost mutually co-dependent, and both adapt their own systems and structures to make the partnership stronger. In Southampton, we have a relationship with Lloyd’s Register dating back more than 40 years, which has passed through all of the stages outlined above. As a result, we are, together, constructing a new campus, which will co-locate 400 engineers from Lloyd’s Register, with engineers and scientists from the University. The two partners are sharing the £115m cost in a project heralded as the largest such business-focused endeavour in any UK university. And we are now using that development as a platform to work with them in Singapore, in the USA and around the world.

Such partnerships bring some of the greatest business impacts from universities. Partnership brings huge rewards, but is hard, time-consuming and involves compromise. You only become the partner of someone you know well. The trust, the confidence, the comfort of working together in this way builds slowly. You can’t rush it.

This blog is part of a regular series on the Knowledge Centre looking at issues in higher education ahead of the Global University Summit (May 28-30 2013), hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London. As part of the Summit, a declaration of commitment and policy recommendations will be drawn up for the G8 summit of world leaders, taking place in Northern Ireland in June.

Image: Southampton University WSA Degree Show Preparation 2008. Source: (Flickr)

Image. Dame Helen Alexander University of SouthamptonDame Helen Alexander, Chancellor of the University of Southampton, chairman of UBM plc, Incisive Media and the Port of London Authority. Dame Helen was president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) until June 2011. Dame Helen was chief executive of the Economist Group until 2008, having joined the company in 1985 and been managing director of the Economist Intelligence Unit from 1993 to 1997.

May 09, 2013

Universities do respond to business in the UK: Professor Dame Julia King

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Image of a monument at the Birmingham Bullring, United Kingdom.

In the UK this year an amazing collection of examples of the impact of universities on the business world is being put together for our Research Excellence Framework exercise. If there was any real doubt about the value of university contributions to economic growth and business success these stories will dispel the myth. From major corporations siting their R&D facilities inside and alongside universities to ensure that their technology is at the cutting edge, to tiny companies having their immediate challenges solved by high quality advice from experts, the spectrum of different ways of working together that is evidenced by this exercise is impressive.

Too often universities are criticised for not providing employable graduates. In our current economic climate, undergraduates and postgraduates are even more actively engaged in seeking real experience of working with businesses through placements, collaborative research and increasingly setting up their own start-up companies. The evidence, from our programmes at Aston University, is very strong that incorporating extended placement activity within an undergraduate course increases the employability of the student and allows an ‘extended interview’ process for the employer. Universities are working hard to improve employability skills but we also need businesses to create high quality opportunities for placements. And it is easy to overlook the value of new graduates’ expertise in social media to enhance the marketing and innovation capability of companies – a skill which is second nature to them.

Big companies know how to get value from universities and there are real challenges for smaller companies. At Aston, our research suggests that medium-sized companies – around 20-50 employees – may hold the key to growth. The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme, led for the Midlands by Aston Business School, is supporting entrepreneur-led small and medium-sized business to expand and grow. We are now working with our fourth cohort of companies, with over 120 ‘graduates’ joining an alumni and networking organisation. There is a real thirst amongst these businesses to super charge their strategies for expansion. All have distinctive products or brands, have identified new markets, are generating revenue and improving their cash position. But they have not previously thought of bringing forward their five or ten year plan to exploit favourable market opportunities. The programme gives them the confidence and the ability to do just that, with practical help to improve financial planning, customer segmentation and marketing. After 18 months the programme has attracted a wide range of companies, from partners in the automotive supply chain to creative and digital agencies, social enterprises and food service brands. The learning and teaching methods involve total commitment, engagement and immersion; these are practical sessions not lectures.

The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme is a leading example of how a research-led university, with real world applicable knowledge, is able to work together with entrepreneur-led business to create growth and employment. The expertise of Aston University in bringing enterprise to the fore has been recognised by the creation of the UK’s first Enterprise Research Centre – in partnership with The University of Warwick – which will help many other businesses benefit from success.

The Centre will also have a significant role in advising government around strategies for growth, so we are confident that in the near future, medium-sized business may get the attention and support it warrants.

This blog is part of a regular series on the Knowledge Centre looking at issues in higher education ahead of the Global University Summit (May 28-30 2013), hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London. As part of the Summit, a declaration of commitment and policy recommendations will be drawn up for the G8 summit of world leaders, taking place in Northern Ireland in June.


Professor Dame Julia King DBE FREng, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University (UK)

Professor Dame Julia King DBE FREng, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University (UK)After sixteen years as an academic researcher and university lecturer at Cambridge and Nottingham universities, Julia King joined Rolls-Royce plc in 1994. At Rolls-Royce she held a number of senior executive appointments, including Director of Advanced Engineering for the Industrial Power Group, Managing Director of the Fan Systems Business, and Engineering Director for the Marine Business. In 2002, Julia became Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, and in 2004 she returned to academia as Principal of the Engineering Faculty at Imperial College, London. In December 2006 she became Vice-Chancellor of Aston University.

Julia is a member of the Board of UniversitiesUK and Chair of its Employability, Business & Industry Policy Network, and a Council member of the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council.

Main image: Birmingham Bullring. Source: Flickr. Published under the creative commons license.

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