Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, opened his speech at Innovate 2016 by stating that “We are determined to make sure that Britain continues to be a beacon of competitiveness, now and in the future.”
Set within this context of Brexit, the evolution of the UK’s Industrial Strategy, and how higher education can and should interact with it, has never been more important. Active engagement in the many aspects of developing and delivering the Industrial Strategy will not only be crucial for institutions’ self-interest, particularly in combating the recent negative definitions of the “expert” much cited in the media but also for the advancement of the UK.
“Scientific knowledge may be universal, but its development is local. Universities are a very good example.”
It’s clear that Clark sees the connection between innovations and place as fundamental to the Industrial Strategy, one in which universities have a major role to play. He made the point at Innovate 2016 that there are centres of research throughout the country, not just concentrated in the “Golden Triangle” around London; that investment should flow into the best opportunities wherever they are; and that the investment in localisation is crucial in enabling global success.
It is an excellent point. Many GuildHE and CREST members already act as magnets for innovation through developing powerful partnerships with local councils and businesses. I’ve come across collaborations with micro-industry from Cornwall to Cumbria that could have profound effects not only on local economies but also at national and even international levels. What such ventures lack is often capacity and the ability to upscale.
Getting the infrastructure right – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)
Which is where the national infrastructure comes in. Getting this right requires developing powerful connections between research and innovation at a national level and that’s why the creation of UKRI as part of the Higher Education and Research Bill passing through Parliament is incredibly important. Clark stated that UKRI is a large part of a more agile approach to supporting the best interdisciplinary and cross-cutting research and he, like the interim Chair of UKRI, John Kingman, is convinced that this can be done without losing Innovate UK’s or any of the Research Councils’ specialisms and cultures, which may go some way in reassuring critics. And Kingman, in setting out his vision for UKRI, goes further: UKRI is not intended to involve “massive restructuring”; rather it is to be a voice of challenge and needs to be “truly dynamic” so that it can genuinely support all subject disciplines.
There is promise in the approach. At time when all sectors are under increasing financial pressure I see benefit in greater collaboration, and even merger, to help achieve shared strategic goals. The ‘however’ is that the excellence can be found anywhere and may be growing rather than already in existence so there needs to be a focus on capacity building as well as end product.
What is the role for universities?
Perhaps Kingman’s most revealing comment is that “no institution should earn the right to be funded because it has been before” (supported by Philip Nelson of RCUK) which ties in with Clark’s statement that the recent first round of science and innovation audits will act as focus on where is best to invest within the UK (two further waves of audits are to be announced shortly).
Interestingly, Kingman also said that he wants to see more partnerships similar to the idea of Innovate UK’s Catapult Centres, where business and universities come together around certain themes. This “territory in the middle” offers some of the best opportunities for university involvement and could be particularly powerful for institutions that are already embedded in their communities, with links to local business. And again initiatives that support such development should be invested in.
Of course, there is not yet much detail on what the Industrial Strategy will involve. However in the light of Brexit, involvement in its development and delivery allows higher education a chance to play a major part in the solution to the UK’s major challenges and opportunities.
1. Quotations are taking from panel session and addresses at Innovate 2016, held in the Manchester Conference Centre on 2nd & 3rd November 2016. More information can be found at: https://www.events.trade.gov.uk/innovate-uk-2016/
2. Greg Clark’s speech can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/a-place-for-innovation