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Working with business and forging partnerships

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By Margaret Adolphus

Introduction and context

In the twenty-first century, universities are closer to big business than to ivory towers. As well as competing for students from every corner of the globe, they are also seeking to translate their unique resource – the knowledge that they create – into a marketable product by entering into business partnerships.

For Ian Maude who facilitates business contacts for the Faculty of Business & Law, part of Leeds Metropolitan University, it's all about being "out there" with business:

"We're a university, we've got to be out there, we can't live in an ivory tower, we need to have links with the business community."

And universities which follow his advice will gain not only a bit of executive training or the trial of a patent, but also real world knowledge with which they can equip their students to become the employable graduates that business wants.

The UK has led the field, at least in Europe, with regard to university–business partnerships. Lifelong learning and employability are firmly on the Government's agenda, and the Leitch Report (Leitch, 2006) called for more emphasis on employer-led skills if the UK was to avoid falling behind the rest of the world.

The Council for Industry in Higher Education has published a report (Connor and Hirsh, 2008) on its research into partnerships between higher education institutions (HEIs) and industry, which claims that profitable partnerships can benefit both sides and increase productivity. How these partnerships can be fostered will be explored later in this article.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council recently announced that it was planning to put £55 million for knowledge transfer accounts, to help universities turn their discoveries into economic and societal benefits.

Conscious of the Government's agenda, many universities in the UK have dedicated units and staff to help foster business partnerships. These offer a range of services including:

  • executive development,
  • consultancy at all stages of the business cycle from start-up to maturity, and
  • project placements with suitable students.

We shall now go on to explore some of the partnerships that can be developed between business schools and industry, focusing particularly on knowledge transfer and executive development. Although much work has been done on industrial applications of science and technology, we shall take most of our examples from business and management disciplines.