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The pursuit of academic excellence and business engagement: is it irreconcilable?

Abstract

Universities currently need to satisfy the demands of different audiences. In light of the increasing policy emphasis on “third mission” activities, universities are attempting to incorporate these into their traditional missions of teaching and research. University strategies to accomplishing its traditional missions are well-honed and routinized, but the incorporation of the third mission is posing important strategic and managerial challenges for universities. This study explores the relationship between university–business collaborations and academic excellence in order to examine the extent to which academic institutions can balance these objectives. Based on data from the UK Research Assessment Exercise 2001 at the level of the university department, we find no systematic positive or negative relationship between scientific excellence and engagement with industry. Across the disciplinary fields reported in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (i.e. engineering, hard sciences, biomedicine, social sciences and the humanities) the relationship between academic excellence and engagement with business is largely contingent on the institutional context of the university department. This paper adds to the growing body of literature on university engagement with business by examining this activity for the social sciences and the humanities. Our findings have important implications for the strategic management of university departments and for higher education policy related to measuring the performance of higher education research institutions.

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Figs. 1–5

Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that some emerging and developing countries, such as Latvia, Russia and Tanzania, have introduced similar measures (Adamsone-Fiskovica et al. 2009; Gokhberg et al. 2009).

  2. 2.

    E.g., a major UK Government policy measure, the Higher Education Innovation Fund, provides funds for setting up university technology transfer offices (TTO), whose remit includes stimulating and supporting university-industry collaboration and the commercialization of academic research. TTOs have to provide evidence of annual performance in these activities to the Higher Education and Business Interaction survey, managed by the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), the agency that also conducted the research assessment exercises and allocates block funding to universities. In 2012, the UK Government allocated £200 million for the creation of “Catapult centres”, aimed specifically at supporting university-industry collaboration with the goal (among others) of commercializing university research and providing industry with access to advanced R&D facilities in universities.

  3. 3.

    The REF replaced the previous Research Assessment Exercise.

  4. 4.

    Most of the studies commissioned for the Hargreaves Review which was the basis for the recommendations, were completed in early March 2011; thus, we do not know whether any of the data/content from these studies will be adapted for journal publication.

  5. 5.

    Since allocation of block-grant funding is linked to the results of this assessment, the incentives to participate are high and all research active university departments in the UK are likely to take part and submit the required information.

  6. 6.

    UoA, at the university level, in some cases are larger than university departments. For instance, in some universities ‘general engineering’ may include mechanical engineering, civil engineering and electrical and electronic engineering departments. However, overall, there is a good match between UoA and university department.

  7. 7.

    The Appendix shows the correspondence between UoA and fields.

  8. 8.

    Data on RAE 2001 is published on: http://www.rae.ac.uk/2001.

  9. 9.

    Research outputs can include patents, book chapters, reports, new designs, artefacts, exhibitions, etc.

  10. 10.

    See http://www.rae.ac.uk/2001/pubs/other/dti.htm

  11. 11.

    We considered two additional measures to capture scientific excellence from different angles and to check the robustness of the results. First, Scientific Excellence 2, which measures the average number of citations per paper for all papers corresponding to each department in our sample (this continuous variable was logarithmically transformed to attenuate problems associated with its skewed distribution). Second, Scientific Excellence 3, which, for each university department, measures the proportion of papers (relative to the university department’s total number of papers) cited as often as or more than the average number of citations per paper for the corresponding disciplinary field of the department.

  12. 12.

    The lists of Russell Group (http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/about.html) and ex-polytechnic universities (http://www.millionplus.ac.uk/index.htm) are taken as the university membership in the year 2000.

  13. 13.

    The median values are: 6.84 % for Biomedical Science; 7.59 % for Hard Science; 23.57 % for Engineering; 3.68 % for Social Science, 0 % for humanities and 3.58 % for all departments.

  14. 14.

    Ordinary Least Square (OLS) and Tobit regression were applied to the additional measures Scientific Excellences 2 and Scientific Excellence 3, respectively.

  15. 15.

    We checked for a curvilinear relationship between engagement with business and scientific excellence, including the quadratic effect of our measure of engagement with business; however, the quadratic effects were not statistically significant. We do not show these results here, but they are available upon request.

  16. 16.

    Regressions considering the two additional measures of excellence show very similar results to those presented here, providing a further check of the robustness of our results.

  17. 17.

    To check the influence of possible outliers in our results we used two diagnostic tests: leverage and Cook’s distance. Less than 1 % of departments were detected as outliers. Regressions excluding outliers provide results similar to those reported here.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments. The authors acknowledge support from the Innovation and Productivity Grand Challenge (IPGC), an initiative of the Advanced Institute of Management Research (AIM) funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EP/C534239/1). We would like to thank the Chair of and the attendees at Session C3 of the 10th International Conference on Science and Technology Indicators, Vienna 2008 for useful comments on an early version of this paper.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Appendix Tables 4 and 5.

Table 4 Average citation count per paper and department, by discipline (i.e. unit of assessment, UoA)
Table 5 Results of the binomial regression for the measure scientific excellence, by field

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D’Este, P., Tang, P., Mahdi, S. et al. The pursuit of academic excellence and business engagement: is it irreconcilable?. Scientometrics 95, 481–502 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-013-0955-2

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Keywords

  • University–business collaborations
  • Scientific excellence
  • University departments
  • University performance
  • University management
  • Incentives
  • Impact assessment

JEL Codes

  • O31
  • O32
  • O38