UK is great at knowledge exchange but doesn’t shout about it enough

SOURCE: Abi Ismail/Unsplash
The nation's universities are always being criticised for being great at research but bad at commercialising it.

By U2B Staff 

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On the international stage, the UK has always been cited as among the top countries in the world for knowledge exchange (KE) activity. Yet, what often gets shouted from rooftops is the urgent need to do more and to do better, compounding the stress on academia in a pressure-cooker higher education sector.

Already grappling with the competition for students in a saturated marketplace that’s disrupted by online learning to boot, institutions also need to prove their worth with leading-edge research that deliver real-world value, and demonstrate the societal and economic impact of their KE activities.

Poor performance on these reputational yardsticks would only see their institutions slide in global rankings, hurting institutional competence and reputation which, in turn, affects enrolment. 

This, compounded by financial pressures such as funding cuts and escalating infrastructure costs, combine to distract institutions from their true focus: the pursuit and spread of new knowledge. 

Nowhere has this intensified more than in the UK. 

A highly-stressed sector

In addition to the above pressures, UK institutions also have to contend with the uncertainty of Brexit, upon which lies the fate of some 20,000 jobs and a flow of research funds to the tune of billions of pounds.

It’s no wonder why academic stress has become such a real and systemic problem here; recent research on wellbeing at universities say 55 percent of higher education staff have reported feeling stress, while close to four in 10 have considered leaving the sector over the past two years due to growing health pressures.


Some of the primary reasons behind these statistics seem to be poor management support and an increasing focus on “accountability measures and executive tasks” rather than teaching and learning. Comments from stressed academics paint the picture of a sector torn between teaching quality and the perennial competition for bums on seats. Something’s got to give, they say.

Yet across government and in Parliament, praise for the nation’s universities is punctuated with proposals calling for more: more meaningful research, more spinout businesses, more patent productivity, more KE activity, more outcomes-focused education, more everything.

UK academics are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Source: Shutterstock

At the very crux of the issue lies a tired claim that Britain’s academics are great at research but terrible at commercialising it.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May said as much in her foreward to the Industrial Strategy White Paper: “… we are not fulfilling Britain’s potential if, despite having scientists and universities renowned the world over, we cannot turn their ideas into the products and services on which the industries of the future will be built.” 

Fact or fiction, it’s a comment bandied about all too frequently even among academic circles.

In an interview we recently published, computational physicist Dr Trevor Hardcastle told us this was one of the reasons why he’d decided to leave academia–academics lacked commercial savvy and he’d been one of them. 

Dr Harry Destecroix, a former Bristol University PhD student who became a multi-millionaire when he sold his university spinout company for a cool £626 million (US$800million) last year, had prior to his commercial success blogged about how scientists often struggled to see the commercial potential of their discoveries.

“They don’t teach you sales in chemistry class,” he’d pointed out in the posting. 

But the numbers tell a different story

The notion that academics struggle with commercialisation is a “self-flagellating myth” that studies and research have sufficiently debunked, according to Imperial College London Professors David Gann and Nick Jennings.

“… if we adjust for the size of our economies, the UK now exceeds the United States in numbers of spinouts formed, disclosures of discoveries, patents and licences,” the academics wrote in a recent Op-Ed for The Guardian.

“In emerging fields such as low-carbon, the UK is forming twice as many spinouts per trillion dollars of GDP as the US. Employment growth by digital technology companies in the UK is five times faster than for the rest of the economy.”

“The UK,” they added later, “is no longer the sick man of commercialisation.”


And academics like Hardcastle and Destecroix are great examples of why the narrative has changed. The world of academia has become less insular and more in tune with changing times, helped along by renewed vigour among universities and businesses to work more closely together in seeking solutions to real-world problems.

Speaking with U2B recently, National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) Chief Executive Dr Joe Marshall agreed the UK’s institutions were much better at KE than it often assumes.

“It’s always been and will always be a thorny issue–whether the UK is good at research but not so good at commercialising it,” he said. “But I think the UK is as good as anyone else that’s doing this. We just have a tendency to beat ourselves up about it.”

There’s plenty of evidence to prove this, he points out, echoing the views of Gann and Jennings. 

It’s no longer true that UK academics don’t know how to commercialise research.

The OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard in 2017, for example, had named the UK the world’s top performer for collaborations between universities and small and medium-sized businesses.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report, meanwhile, has consistently listed the UK in the global top 10 for university-industry research collaborations. Last year’s ranking saw the UK share 6th place with Germany, behind other global research powerhouses like the US, Israel, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Finland. 

This may have represented a slide through the years–the UK was ranked second in 2011 and 2012–but for a nation then (and now still) struggling to regain its footing after the 2016 Brexit referendum, the ranking posited a future in KE still brimming with potential.


State of the Relationship 2019

More recently, the NCUB released its latest iteration of the “State of the Relationship” report, the body’s annual assessment of the health of university-business partnerships in the UK.

The 2019 iteration was its first study of the sector after the Brexit vote and offers a clearer snapshot of what KE in the UK could look like after the exit is formalised.

We’ve reported on it here, but here are a few of the headline facts:

  • The quantum of university-business interactions increased in 2016-17, although a drop in the overall value of these interactions did suggest some need for caution.
  • Foreign investment in the UK’s universities rose in this period, a promising glimpse of KE in post-Brexit Britain, where the work remaining a globally-competitive nation will bring with it a raft of new challenges.
  • The number of university-SME deals dipped 13 percent but the average value rose an even more significant 21.8 percent. As a trend, this should be read as a positive indicator of institutions pursuing fewer yet deeper, more meaningful and higher-value partnerships with local businesses. 
  • Overall, in its six years measuring KE in the UK, the NCUB has reported a 27 percent rise in industry income, 44 percent rise in HEI deals with SMEs and 9 percent rise in deals with big businesses. 

In a nutshell, the arrows of KE activity in the UK are pointing up, deserving of recognition for the stakeholders responsible for these statistics.


“We are actually as good as many of our international competitors,” Marshall tells U2B.

“Across the UK, our universities have done a phenomenal job of being able to demonstrate that every pound of public investment is being translated into multipliers of genuine economic growth.”

UK universities have been able to demonstrate the economic return of the public money that gets invested into it. Source: Sidharth Bhatia/Unsplash

The Knowledge Exchange Framework

Of course, in an era of disruptive change, there’s no time now to rest on laurels, no matter how good at KE the UK has become.

But to start with, Marshall says UK administrators would do well to adopt a much more encouraging tone in public remarks on the state of KE. 

He’d articulated this late last year, ahead of the consultation process on the forthcoming Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). Distilling NCUB members’ views in a letter to Research England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Scottish Funding Council, Marshall had said that whilst it was important to hold KE practitioners to high standards, the government should moderate its criticism of research commercialisation, especially at a time when the country was nurturing many international partnerships.

Much like the NCUB does in its annual State of the Relationship reports, he said the government should celebrate some of the many successes the UK’s institutions have had in the areas of KE and research commercialisation.

“This more confident external presentation would better reflect our relatively high performance and better support our standing with international partners.

“Similarly, it would be useful for businesses with successful working relationships with higher education to do more to publicise their experiences,” he’d written. 


Currently in its pilot phase, the KEF is being developed as a way to assess the level and quality of KE activities being undertaken by the UK’s higher education institutions. As the third pillar of university activity assessment, alongside the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the KEF is meant to encourage more meaningful and valuable interactions between universities and industry.

Of course, what constitutes a meaningful or valuable interaction will depend on the metrics used to asses these activities, a point of contention some in academia have already raised.

Marshall noted that merely calculating the financial returns of a KE activity would not be the most effective method of gauging value. Non-financial gauges such as civic engagement and benefits to local communities must be given fair weightage in the KEF too, he said.

“Certainly a big part of KE will be about economic benefits and value. But you will see that they are also grappling with those non-monetary, non-financial benefits, and how you might capture the civic contribution the university might make to a particular place or places,” he told U2B.

“Otherwise, this ends up being a discussion purely centered on amounts of money.”


Asked if introducing new measures like the KEF would discourage blue skies research or impact academic freedom as academics shy away from long-term projects with no immediate commercial relevance, Marshall said the key lies in finding and striking the right balance.

Some of the best ideas and innovations, he noted, were born out of university-business collaborations that used a multidisciplinary approach to solving real-world challenges. Applying blue skies thinking to applied research, he said, could help unlock new discoveries.

“Some of the new boundaries or new frontiers discovered in science and innovation can only be achieved by bringing together different disciplines,” he added.

“If you look at some of the challenge areas in the Industrial Strategy… carbon emissions, for example, it’s in the sort of multidisciplinary space but ultimately, you’d still need the fundamental, blue skies thinking research to drive it.

“And it’s the subsequent convergence of those different areas and then utilising that to address grand challenges or societal issues–that’s the interesting bit.”

Despite the threat of a no-deal Brexit, UK’s universities are still winning at knowledge exchange. Source: Shutterstock

In addition to that, there’s no end to the benefits both universities and businesses could derive from working together, he said. Universities are getting their graduates better prepared for the future of work while businesses get to tap the expertise of the best and brightest in academia to keep pace with demands of a tech-enabled era. 

“By working with a business, you’re starting to provide unique selling points as to why your graduates are different from other graduates and also where your research is genuinely having an impact and transformation,” Marshall said. 

Plus, with the help of facilitators like the NCUB, it’s become much easier today for both parties to connect. The role of universities, Marshall added, has certainly evolved in the 21st century to match the needs of the modern landscape. 

And it rightfully should.

“The day of universities being in ivory towers are long done. Thinking about the ways they are interacting with, making connections with and benefiting society and the economy are now at the heart of what universities should be doing.”