07/06/2012 13:02 BST | Updated 07/08/2012 06:12 BST

Universities - Open for Business Together

At a time of economic and financial crisis, we should expect our universities to carefully consider what they can do to make the UK a more compelling place to carry out business. This is not an abstract notion: universities up and down the land are taking on the challenge to open them up to the outside world and to ensure the UK is the number one destination for business and industry. Although great progress has been made there is yet more to do if we are to make best use of our world class university sector.

But it's not just about what universities can or should do for business - working with business can add immeasurably to continue producing world class research.

Doing so will mean universities need to work in new ways. That will mean putting aside a deeply ingrained competitive nature to collaborate with business, so as to tackle the profound issues affecting our world now and in the future - climate change, mega-city living, aging populations. By their very nature, they are complex cross-disciplinary research problems - yet they come with immense commercial opportunity. If the UK is to encourage inward investment from major corporations as part of rebuilding our economy, then such collaboration is vital. No one single organisation will have all the answers.

Only a couple of weeks ago, for example, in the presence of Chancellor George Osborne, Intel signed an agreement with Imperial College and UCL to set up an Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities in the heart of London. The vision is to establish a major centre for long-term research into how to make cities more connected, sustainable and effective - in short better places to live, trade and work. With half the world's population now live in cities, the academic and commercial opportunities associated with urbanisation are vast.

Here in London, one of the world's leading capitals, we can promote the research and innovation that will ultimately deliver major societal and economic benefits for London and the UK. But we also know that to be successful, close collaboration with world class businesses and even between competitor universities is crucial for our collective success.

The collaboration between Intel, Imperial and UCL is an exciting new venture representing a major new commitment by the partners. This is a commitment not undertaken by any of the partners lightly or for immediate short term commercial or financial gain - indeed, a key element of the project is the prospect of long-term collaboration between world-class research staff within the universities and industry. The Institute will provide a pipeline for innovation with all of the associated long term and sustainable societal and economic benefit. It's a great example of partnership - a shared vision, complementary skills and a commitment to long term collaboration.

In terms of promoting this type of inward investment, to its credit the Government is trying to do its bit. The patent box idea, for example - which provides favourable tax rules for companies looking to develop, manufacture and exploit intellectual property and patents in the UK rather than overseas - provides a useful incentive to encourage appropriate and sustained exploitation of fundamental research for the good of the UK economy.

Competition can be a good thing and it is certainly alive and well in the university sector and unlikely to fade any time soon, lest of all between UCL and Imperial College, the capital's most prominent and most competitive world-leading institutions. Collaborating on projects which deliver a host of benefits, creating jobs and a sustainable economy for decades to come is a no brainer - as is enabling our universities to enhance their world-leading research lead.

Being enthusiastic to work with business - and recognising the value of the strengths higher education institutions across the sector bring - will ensure we do our part to give the message loud and clear that the UK is open for business in the 21st century, together.

This piece was jointly authored with Edward Astle, Pro Rector for Enterprise at Imperial College London.