Response to Sir Anton Muscatelli Review into Economic Impact of Scottish Universities

The RSE has provided a response to a call for evidence from Sir Anton Muscatelli into his review of the role Scottish universities play in working with industry in stimulating inclusive growth.

The response provides evidence of success stories from universities as well as other programmes, such as the Enterprise Fellowship programme which the RSE operates.  However, the RSE also highlights the barriers that exist and presents recommendations to improve the performance of universities in stimulating inclusive growth.

Paper summary

The Royal Society Edinburgh (RSE) welcomes the Muscatelli Review but notes that the current evidence base is limited and incomplete, and further research may need to be done to assess the economic impact of universities in a holistic and systematic way. While individual programmes have been subject to periodic evaluation, we are not aware of any research or evaluation which assesses the overall economic impact of the Higher Education Sector on economic development and working with businesses.

Nonetheless, within the current landscape, there is a recognition that where universities and businesses work together there are examples of success stories. While in comparison to the Golden Triangle Scotland does not produce as many spinouts, relative to size, it can be argued that its performance is good. There is no magic bullet that can fix specific areas of under-performance and a coordinated approach will be necessary to identify where changes can add value to the current landscape, building on best practices and examples of success. We believe that this Review should be an appreciative inquiry in that it looks at ways to expand what is already being done well.

Beyond the core remit of producing work-ready graduates, the most direct way universities can have a positive economic impact is through spinouts, start-ups, successful contract research and commercialisation of research. In this area, the Society highlights several success stories, including our own Enterprise Fellowship programme, Unlocking Ambition, Converge Challenge, Catapult Centres and reports from Scottish universities.

While spinouts from universities achieve impact, the Review should also consider the importance of peer-to-peer learning and knowledge exchange programmes. Innovation Centres, Interface and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships all play an important role in developing relationships between academia and business. Ensuring that these partnerships can be sustained and expanded beyond the current limited support that is available will further boost innovation and economic growth. While the funding landscape is crowded there are new opportunities arising, particularly through funding mechanisms such as City Growth Deals, Industrial Strategy Challenge Funds and Innovate UK. It will be important that opportunities are properly signposted, and that Scottish businesses and universities get the most from these.

The role of the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board and its analytical unit will be important in ensuring the work of the enterprise and skills agencies supports better engagement between universities and businesses across Scotland. The analytical unit may be able to provide specific analysis in this area and identify where improvements could be made. Additionally, the Board can assist Scottish businesses and universities in getting the most from programmes and initiatives, including new funds via the UK Industrial Strategy.

The RSE highlights that it will be important to ensure that all the parts of the university sector that interact with business do so effectively and can access and benefit from the funding available to achieve economic impact. Additionally, the role of colleges is important, particularly in the development of skills and their connection to business. The RSE, therefore, welcomes the commissioning of a complementary review on the economic impact of colleges.