Business and universities stand ready to drive economic growth

Our Convener Professor Andrea Nolan reflects on the close partnership between business and universities and how she believes this relationship will continue to grow in the future. 

I fully believe Scotland has the vital ingredients to be a leading innovation nation. This ambition, recently reinforced by Professor Muscatelli’s National Mission report, is shared by highly motivated people across our higher education sector – academics, professional staff and Vice Chancellors alike, who are already playing their role in realising it.

That’s why common cause between Universities Scotland and SCDI is important and timely. Scotland’s business and university sectors are closely aligned when it comes to the priority of inclusive economic growth but we have to keep working at extending and deepening that collaboration. We share ambition for what we believe can be achieved here in Scotland and we agree on a set of very practical policy and funding steps to help get us there with pace.

Before taking on the role of Convener at Universities Scotland, I convened the sector’s Research and Knowledge Exchange committee. I made business engagement to support innovation a priority, and wanted to ensure that it was easier than ever for businesses to work with universities to address their innovation needs. To do that we delivered on a five point action plan for innovation. Those practical actions were focused on removing barriers to collaboration, on opening our doors so that our facilities and high-tech bits of kit (over 1,200 of them) can be used by business, and by doing away with as much ‘red tape’ and paperwork as possible. As it stands, 45% of innovation-active companies see universities as a partner in delivering their innovation projects. At 45% universities scored higher than commercial research and development partners and public agencies, but we want to do more and be seen as partners of first choice for business innovation.

The shared statement with SCDI is a fresh look at what else is needed to further accelerate Scotland’s innovation journey. Arguably the timing has never been more important. The business environment in Scotland and the rest of the UK could look very different in 12 months’ time. Everyone stands to benefit if we can work well together to play a role in the acceleration of sustainable, inclusive economic growth.

We want to take every opportunity to give Scotland’s SMEs new, competitive advantage – to increase the number of small companies who see innovation as relevant to their business model and / or to their export ambitions, and to help them find that support easily from a university partner. Over 1,200 “innovation vouchers” have already been used to support innovation partnerships between Scottish SMEs and universities, one of our many channels for working with thousands of companies every year. Those vouchers have supported new product development, new processes and new opportunities in market. With more referrals to universities for business support services, we could do so much more.

The Industrial Strategy is one opportunity that universities and business have in our collective sights. Billions of pounds of resource is available from the UK Government to those with the most effective responses to a set of “challenge funds”. So far Scotland’s universities have leveraged about 7% of the funds available into Scotland. We want to double that to 14%, and we believe we can. The bids are led by business with universities as major delivery partners and we are confident that with a coordinated approach we have the assets in Scotland to be competitive and successful. If we bring that resource into Scotland it will support industry growth, jobs and economic security. We want the Scottish and UK Governments to get behind that ambition. Having the right policy and funding frameworks in Scotland to underpin our business and university sectors will give us the solid foundation needed to support that ambition.

Our shared ambition and achievement from working together in partnership is exemplified by the ORCA Hub, a new partnership based in Scotland between five universities and 31 industrial partners focused on the development of the robotics and artificial intelligence needed to repair and maintain all manner of offshore energy platforms as part of the green energy agenda. It’s a great example of the combined strength of industry and academia.

It’s exactly that strength and unity of ambition that is reflected in our common cause.