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Sep 2017

Back to school: A partnership between industry and academia is essential for future UK growth

Thinking about the new academic year beginning in September, from those starting school for the first time to the individuals in the higher academic university research arenas, it’s time to refresh and renew the approach as the next tranche of bright new people and ideas enter the academic world.

Looking at the skills and technology that our company needs to develop and build for the future, these are in the areas where the UK is traditionally strong, although needs to maintain a competitive edge to move forward. From addressing skills shortages in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, to increasing female presence in the engineering and technical domain and supporting the new and growing sectors, such as cyber security.

Earlier this year, two key documents were issued that form a great backdrop to this topic. These underpin the approach that must be embraced to develop and maintain the UK as an academic and industrial centre of excellence for the future, as the world develops into a more competitive, complex and diverse environment.

The Government’s Industrial Strategy and Engineering UK’s State of Engineering report both look at what is needed to strengthen the UK for future success. The key themes resonate and align with the aspects we appreciate at TRL, from current in progress engagements to the planning being undertaken to harness and support the future. So whether you are entering academia, or returning to industry after a nice summer break, here are some thoughts and considerations for your reflection to ensure we have a fruitful academic/industry partnership that builds a great UK future.

Strategy: Business and academia alike must have a strategy to provide long term planning and clear direction for activity execution and remaining relevant. For academia they must have an industry/business thread, for example, for a school how they will align topics to the future workplace and world, and for business an academic one, that is, the skills and research from universities to supplement the growth. The three salient pillars from the industry strategy that play a significant part are:

  • ‘Investing in science, research and innovation’,
  • ‘Developing skills’
  • ‘Cultivating world-leading sectors’.

These outline a number of areas where our participation will be strong, from the future Industrial Challenge Strategy Fund, to supporting joint research, to the collaboration approach to facilitate long-term investment in embryonic endeavours.  

TRL’s academic thread interlinks through business, technology, skills and market aspects including taking an academic and wider community benefit perspective to ensure appropriate support. In refining our strategy for the next steps more focus will be placed on a smaller number of strands for each of the short, medium and long-term to ensure real advantage is gained and that our efforts are not diluted.

Goals and benefits: This is one of the easiest arenas within which to define the goals and benefits! With an extensive list we must ensure clear focus on those that give the most benefit. The goals for business and academia are effectively opposite sides of the same coin as both benefit from a joint approach, for example university research that provides both with growth and market position opportunities.

The key benefits range from new talent growth from schools to deliver the future needs of businesses, through expert involvement to develop students, and a wider team providing facilities and support for the community. TRL invests in these avenues keeping them under regular review to ensure our efforts align with our strategy.

A clear benefit example is our university industry advisory panel which allows shaping of the curriculum to best support industry and give universities an improved selling point. With a faster changing world, relevance re-checking to the specific goals and benefits is increasingly important to ensure an efficient and effective approach. This is a clear text book ‘win-win’… we just have to ensure the correct focus at all times.

Engagement: Like most beneficial relationships they take effort! Business and academia must ensure they check each other’s drivers to ensure the relationship model appropriately suits both parties. To give an example, with TRL’s research engagement with The University of Birmingham, Richard Fox (Business Engagement Partner) appreciates the industry pace and is gently pushy with good information on how best to work together making my interaction easier (and I aim to reciprocate with more flexible support for joint endeavours that align with university activity).  

Importantly, creating an environment of increased collaboration allows better understanding. TRL is part of the National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC) CyberInvest scheme, where universities and industry collectively engage to investigate mutually beneficial areas to move forward addressing the cyber security agenda. This is a clear collaboration gain in bringing the right wider community together for greater benefit. Early and continued engagement on focussed endeavours is key and you must be honest to address things that aren’t working.

Innovation: This is the lifeblood for growth, from appreciating and fostering it within schools to undertaking and commercialising within universities and industry.  Business must be supporting innovation in schools and partnering on innovation with universities. A couple of key TRL examples are:

  • The Engineering Education Scheme in local schools where STEM diversity is emphasised through male and female engineering and project management specialists supporting students
    Innovation sessions with universities to give different perspectives with other dimensions from customer and industry perspectives. These foster a creative and challenging innovation environment that is core and must be built into the culture.

  • Learning from our recent experiences, we will be taking a stronger leadership and communication approach across the community to ensure improved momentum and cultural transformation occurs so we can play our part in embedding innovation in a growing positive manner as a priority for the future.

Talent: Nurturing and growing future talent is paramount. This must embrace the diversity of new world capabilities as well as strengthening core skills to deliver success for the UK in this ever more competitive world. Key skills are in short supply and are expected in growing demand for the future. A number of TRL’s engagements that support this have been covered earlier in this article to which I’ll add two aspects.  

First, more emphasis is required on the softer side skills such as leadership, emotional intelligence and good behaviour sets, all of which form part of the skill set required for the future business professionals.

The second is provision of an excellent talent creation environment linked to careers. Here, TRL supports a number of avenues through wider collaboration as part of the NCSC’s CyberFirst scheme to deepen involvement in our key subject areas and our award winning ‘Cerebrum’ development programme to challenge and mentor the graduate, industrial placement and apprenticeship community.

The improvements we are making following our initial years’ undertaking are to strengthen the mentoring arrangement to provide better advice and engagement and  an approach change to enable earlier, value-added, real world experiences to accelerate effectiveness.

There are a great deal of challenges in creating successful academia and industry partnerships and the aspects I have highlighted above are crucial parts. What is for sure is that we must keep learning and changing to deliver a strong and growing UK future, of which an enduring academic and industry relationship is an essential foundation.

Effective collaboration is key. Hopefully your enjoyed my thoughts and I always appreciate feedback and comment.

Tim Hadfield is part of TRL’s senior management team leading on the company’s links between academia and industry.