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Universities Must Keep Their Wits About Them When It Comes to Impact

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Sir Andrew Witty's independent review of how universities can support growth has been published, to general approval.

As you'd expect from one of the world's top business leaders who has taken GlaxoSmithKline into the apex of global pharmaceutical giants, Witty's review is thoughtful and packed with evidence and data. It is also reasonably focused with a relatively small number of thoughtful recommendations.

Overall, most of what has been proposed is fairly sensible and there is a welcome message that universities in this country are working well with business and are at the heart of many local economies.

Some might be concerned with the first recommendation that universities should actively pursue and report to government annually on enterprise activities and with a clear focus on economic impact. But Witty is not suggesting a wholesale move to short-termism, rather a developmental approach to better exploiting our world class universities for the good of our economy. He is clear on the importance and potential comparative advantage of truly world class research. He also notes that there is a correlation between the best of the best in universities and their willingness to work with industry.

What will be most eye-catching for many inside the academic community is the proposal that the impact of academic research should feature even more prominently in how research is evaluated in the next assessment of research, known as the REF (Research Excellence Framework).

This might not sound earth-shattering outside academic circles, but it could mean a profound change in the way our universities work with business.

I for one would welcome this. While many academics have made huge strides in engaging with business, there are plenty more who could benefit and enjoy such collaborations - not simply with large corporations, but with the dynamic small and medium enterprise community. And Witty recommends that government make an enhanced and longer term commitment to the Higher Education Innovation Fund to help do just that.

There are other incentives; perhaps inevitably Witty suggests the creation of a new scheme, the so-called Arrow projects, potentially offering hundreds of millions of pounds in collaborative research funding to help translate research into economic and social benefit. It is an interesting idea, but it will require a good deal of thought in implementation. If we get it right, though, it will create jobs and economic prosperity, and many more exciting new technologies, treatments, products and services emerging from our great universities.

Universities have long since grown out of their clich├ęd reputation as ivory towers, but there is still a way to go before working with business is a matter of course, and a culture of enterprise becomes embedded at institutions. The next phase will require far more collaboration and partnership and that is what Witty appears to be trying to stimulate through his proposals. Universities repositioned as anchors of our innovation and enterprise ecosystems is something we should welcome.

Perhaps the most significant omission was the lack of recognition of the importance of supporting individuals - individual entrepreneurs and innovators, both inside and outside universities, and I was surprised because it is they who can be powerful agents of change. Very often those people need to move between public and private sector and despite some good schemes, we still struggle to encourage that movement and we need to find ways to unshackle those free spirits who are often so important for innovation.

In a nutshell, the Review was full of sensible proposals with few surprises. This was a welcome recognition of the potential we have to drive growth through engagement with universities. It lacked any real "big bang" surprises, but if properly implemented, it's just possible that we will look back in this as a watershed moment.