Does distance matter for university-business collaboration?

SOURCE: Shutterstock
When it comes to research partnerships, does it matter if a business is outside the university's home town?

The UK is a global powerhouse for research. According to Universities UK, the country’s research institutions are ranked second in the world for quality.

And despite being home to just 0.9 percent of the global population and 4.1 percent of researchers, the UK produces 10 percent of total citations and 15.9 percent of the world’s most highly-cited articles.

But how did they achieve these numbers? How much have the localisation and globalisation of knowledge creation, a phenomenon that’s transformed whole industries around the world, impacted knowledge partnerships between academia and industry?

Does distance matter for university-business collaboration?

A group of Dutch researchers recently conducted a study to find out. Funded by the Center for Global Higher Education (CGHE), they examined thousands of research publications co-produced by 48 of the largest research universities across the country to spot patterns in their geographical distribution.

Robert Tijssen, one of the study’s authors and a co-Investigator on CGHE’s global higher education engagement research programme, said although UK institutions were traditionally more focussed on collaborating with local businesses, their research discovered a marked shift over the last decade.


‘A pervasive process of internationalisation’

To understand the geographical distribution of UK university-business research partnerships across a 10-year period ending 2017, Tijssen and fellow researchers looked at address data provided by publication authors.

They extracted the city names from the authors’ affiliate addresses in the publications and used the information to calculate the spatial distance (in kilometres) between each university and its business partners. The researchers then grouped the collaborations into distance zones to identify patterns in the data.

Tijssen said the annual growth trend of collaborations fostered over the 10 years revealed a “pervasive process of internationalisation or globalisation”.

UK research has become increasingly globalised over the past decade. Source: Shutterstock

UK universities were partnering up with a notably larger number of international organisations located at least 500km outside their home zones and even though collaborations with local businesses also increased during the period, it was at a much lower rate.

In fact, in 2017, the majority of UK university partnerships were with foreign firms:

  • 14.7 percent of firms were within a 100km radius from the university’s hometown
  • 21.3 percent were located elsewhere in the UK or Ireland (100-499km)
  • 28.9 percent were located mainly on the European continent (500-4,999km)
  • 33.8 percent were scattered across the globe

University partnerships with organisations 5,000km away grew on average 11 percent every year, whereas engagement with local partners within a 50km range increased by a mere 3 percent.

Most significantly, UK university partnerships with European organisations (in the 500-4,999km zone) increased the most over the time period, with an average annual growth rate of 12 percent.

“In other words, UK universities have also been heavily engaged in a process of ‘Europeanisation’ as far as cooperating with industry is concerned,” Tijssen said.

These European partnerships were most likely EU-funded programmes, which often involve operating in larger public-private consortia involving several university partners and various organisations across the continent.

However, with the threat of a no-deal Brexit looming large, the future of these research partnerships now hang in the balance.

“UK universities have become increasingly embedded in the industry-relevant segment of the European Research Area and are therefore vulnerable in the event of a no-deal Brexit,” Tijssen said.

Universities and scientists across the UK have warned that losing access to EU research funding would severely impact the country’s innovation agenda. They have for months lobbied the government for a suitable contingency, a failure of which would come at the expense of the UK economy.

International collaboration, as Universities UK has pointed out in its report on Brexit, is “integral” to creating world-class research with lasting impact. Total research output has more than doubled over the past 30 years for some established economies, and almost all that growth has been produced by international partnerships.


Other factors

With access to background data on individual UK universities from the UK Office for National Statistics among other sources, CGHE researchers were also able to identify reasons to why some institutions were more focused on local firms while others chose to work with international partners.

They found that the level of R&D activity in the local business sector played a major part.

“Universities need a bedrock of local business partners to develop successful joint research projects with industry, irrespective of where all their business sector partners are located in the UK or worldwide,” Tjissen noted. 

The research also found distance to be a major factor in close-distance partnerships. For example, universities with many such partnerships reported having larger numbers of researchers with dual affiliations (at the university and a local firm) and more consultancy contracts with firms both large and small.

On the whole, three patterns showed how UK universities have evolved over the years in terms of partnerships:

  • 18 institutions displayed significant “glocalisation” (rapid growth in large-distance collaboration, moderate in close-distance ranges)
  • 5 became strongly globalised (but not localised)
  • 25 showed no distinctive patterns.
The threat of a no-deal Brexit continues to loom large over the future of UK research. Source: Shutterstock

Overall, half of the UK’s research-intensive universities seemed to have further globalised in one way or another in their outreach to industry.

What does it mean?

Tjissen acknowledged that the study only captured one aspect of university-business interaction – ie. the distance distribution of their partnerships.

But, he said the findings were revealing of how the country’s higher education sector has responded to local constraints in recent years, particularly recent developments in the UK.

These findings could supplement other national studies on the state of university-business collaborations like the Higher Education–Business and Community Interaction survey and provide new performance indicators for the UK’s Knowledge Exchange Framework.

They may also help predict future patterns in knowledge exchange activity for the country. A no-deal Brexit, for example, would likely kill off a significant portion of the UK’s international partnerships. How badly would this hurt British science and the country’s innovation economy? For now, we can only speculate.