11th October 2016

Higher Education life began at 40 for me. After many years working in big business and small, including my own start-up, I took an unplanned ‘pivot’ into the world of university business engagement and student enterprise.

An early reality check, that still shocks me to this day, was the ‘out of office’ response to an email sent to an academic one mid-July. It read “I will be undertaking scholarly activities or on holiday until early September, please contact me again then.” This academic had a specific remit for business engagement and student enterprise but her response spoke volumes about a fundamental disconnect between the world of business and the world of academia.

Now, that was in the early 2000's, and I have since seen university business engagement and enterprise education come on in leaps and bounds. There are now some fantastic examples of university academics really understanding the needs, timescales, working practices and culture of business. There are also many expert and highly committed enterprise and entrepreneurship educators working across discipline areas in many of our universities. When this happens as it should, the result is more meaningful collaborations, more relevant and impactful research, more innovation in business and more enterprising students and graduates.

The common thread that runs through the success stories is a willingness of staff to get out into the world of business to increase their understanding of business needs, operations and priorities and to put a human face on the university. But this simply does not happen often enough; there are still far too many examples of inwardly focussed university staff who rarely step away from the campus. And there are too many businesses, particularly SMEs, that could benefit from working with universities but simply don’t know how to find the ‘front door’.

It is easy for me to say that academic staff should get out more but it is important to recognise the constraints and barriers and consider how these could be minimised. For many it is a massive step away from their comfort zones to go out and connect with business so there need to be incentives and support. In the past the catalyst for university business engagement, particularly with SMEs, has often been European funds such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). But Brexit means that these funds may soon disappear, just at a time when the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is to become a new priority alongside the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The impact agenda within the REF is welcome but, with the added pressures of the TEF, universities need more incentives if university business engagement is to flourish. In my view it is essential that universities work alongside Local Enterprise Partnerships to make a strong case to the UK government for the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) to be replaced as we head towards the exit door of the EU.

Kate Beresford is Managing Director of Kate Beresford Associates and works with universities on enterprise, innovation and knowledge transfer initiatives. Kate is a panel member for the Small Business Charter accreditation.