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The Connected University – Driving Recovery and Growth

“Lord Sainsbury and NESTA are launching a report exploring the vital economic contribution of the UK’s universities today, 30 April 2009.

Lord Sainsbury, Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners and Michael Kitson, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge will debate the role of Universities in regional economic growth. Jonathan Kestenbaum, NESTA’s Chief Executive will moderate.”

I blogged the event live and my notes are here.

As a summary here is a wordle of my notes:

connected-university-wordle

Three key areas for action

Lord Sainsbury highlighted three important things:

  • Increasing the scope for technical or business Universities to interact and link with SMEs – but not all Universities should have same mission.  Sainsbury argues that there will be a ‘Top 30’ of Universities who do ‘world-class’ research.  Other Universities  should not compete but differentiate themselves. It’s not necessary to ‘create new research’ – but we do need to improve the implementation of existing research.
  • The importance of science and innovation campuses – such as RAL, Daresbury, NIMH in St Pancras. Clusters of real expertise and these places can provide tremendous opportunities but it needs government drive to succeed.
  • FE colleges are important but neglected.  Government and RDAs need to focus on this.  We need a Further Education Innovation fund (like HEIF).

Sainsbury concluded by noting “We can’t predict which sectors new businesses will come from but we can predict that they will come from the high-tech clusters surrounding our Universities.”

Who was there and who wasn’t?

Consideration of the attendees (from the printed guest list) is instructive; representatives from the case studies were there; Cambridge, Southampton, Bristol, Bath, Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield Hallam, Dundee, Daresbury. And I suppose it would be a bit odd if they weren’t there.  Others: Nottingham, Oxford Brookes, Queen’s Belfast, Wales, Bangor, Imperial, Liverpool Management School, Northumbria, Greenwich, Sussex, Ravensbourne, UCL.  Oxford present through Oxford Innovations.

Various representatives of the societies (Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal…), RCUK, quangos and consulting odds and sods (like me).  A few venture capitalists.

Interesting to note the Universities not present and also the pattern of other attendees.  I assume (and it seems likely) that the Nesta invitation went out pretty widely.   Nesta has a good approach to openly promoting their events and in my experience, their events are very well run and the quality of speakers and debate is high.  For events of this type, the Nesta CEO, Jonathan Kestenbaum, is very active and visible.

Better Connections between the Universities and the economy is a UK strategic issue

Nesta is right to identify the importance of the connections between the Universities and the economy.  It’s a big issue for the UK and no matter how good we feel we are at it (and I’d say at best it’s patchy) we need to be better.  While there were representatives from HEFCE and DIUS, only 2 RDAs turned up (SEEDA and Advantage West Midlands) and no one from BERR.  No Government Ministers.

There was also much talk of the ‘Top 30′ universities. This seemed to raise a few hackles!  Eric Thomas from Bristol sounded a negative note by indicating that Universities are not ‘recession proof’ – look at what’s happening in the US.  And I think he was right in sounding a cautionary note as I felt that there was too much complacency in the room and too much of an ‘even keel’.

As far as Nesta’s report is concerned – it’s a very valuable contribution and a good source of ‘food for thought’.  But I feel Nesta ‘pulled its punches’.  I think that the evidence in the report could support a much firmer line from Nesta in pushing harder to define what the role of Universities will be in future as part of our economy, as Lord Sainsbury hinted in his remarks.  We are in the NBAU world – there is No Business As Usual and this needs to be true for our Universities just as much as it is for the rest of us.