There are many benefits for companies in seeking a closer relationship with the university sector, though not all companies recognise this fact. In the authors' experience, it is mainly the bigger companies that approach the universities, largely because they require a greater intake of graduates each year and are looking for ways to raise their profile amongst students.
Small to medium-sized companies are often unaware that the benefits to be gained are more than graduate recruitment and there are many ways to collaborate with a university that have little cost but give significant benefits, especially in IT, where the research undertaken in the universities has direct practical application. Even the larger companies do not necessarily have an awareness of all the opportunities available to get the best out of the collaboration.
Guest lectures for undergraduate courses
Guest lectures are frequently offered to 'raise the company profile' amongst the students, and these can be very beneficial to both company and university. The company has its name publicised to the students and the students gain an insight into the work the company is involved in. However, this is not simply an opportunity for a company to spend an hour simply promoting itself.
A university is unlikely to object to a guest lecturer devoting five minutes to advertise opportunities at their company, but a lecture needs to provide an integrated contribution to the lecture series. This means the lecture content must be carefully selected and negotiated with the university lecturer responsible for the module being delivered. Students will take the lecture more seriously if it contributes to the course and is assessed in the module's coursework or examination.
A simple yet effective means of raising the profile of the company is to award a prize in the the company name. Prizes may be offered for the best or most improved student in a particular year of a course, for the best project or for best students on a particular module. If the company comes to the university to announce the winner (chosen on academic performance) and award the prize, they will normally have the chance to advertise who they are and why they are awarding the prize, an excellent opportunity for publicity.
Industrial 'sandwich' placements
At some universities, a significant proportion of students on computer-related undergraduate courses take a sandwich placement in industry between their second and third academic years. These students provide excellent value for money as they are very enthusiastic to get to work in a 'real' environment. Although it is a limited, one-year commitment, many companies will then offer the student employment for when they graduate.
At the end of their placement year, the company will know the student's capabilities well, a sort of 'year-long interview' that ensures the company and the graduate know what to expect. Many of our students are snapped up by their placement companies before other companies have any chance to recruit them.
Undergraduate and MSc projects
Student projects can be of direct benefit to a company. Nearly all undergraduate and masters computing degrees require the student to undertake a substantial project in their final year, indeed BCS requires it for accreditation of degree programmes. Projects undertaken for a real client, with a real, practical problem, are far better than an invented 'academic' problem. The cost to the company is more in terms of employee time spent with the student to explain the requirements and later look at and comment on any software or documentation produced rather than any direct financial cost.
The project does have to be carefully chosen, however. Undergraduate and MSc projects normally have fixed start and finish dates, and the student must have the time to write up a report in this time. There is clearly some element of risk here as the university is not in a position to offer any guarantees that the project will be completed. However, with a suitable project, a company can gain a valuable piece of work that may not otherwise have been possible.
Many companies of all sizes dismiss the possibility of undertaking research with a university on the grounds that the company is not a research organisation. While it may be true that its products may not use new hardware or software technology, this does not rule out the possibilities of research as most companies have scope to make their processes more efficient and productive, especially where IT methods are used.
It doesn't have to involve new technology as long as the application is new. Such collaboration, if undertaken as part of a research project, can be very cost-effective and there may even be money available to support such collaboration from one of the research councils, such as the EPSRC.
For a longer-term, in-depth collaboration, a company can consider sponsoring a PhD student to research into an area of interest to the company. Sponsorship can range from the provision of employee time and effort to work with the student, if they have funding from elsewhere, to fully funding the student's fees and living expenses. As the student works full-time on the project, if necessary the student could spend significant time at the company, working alongside employees, and this certainly helps keep the project relevant and on track.
The Engineering Doctorate is an alternative to the PhD that is particularly designed for close university-company collaboration. This is a four-year degree that requires the student to spend about three-quarters of their time at a sponsoring company. This degree also has a classroom component to teach research techniques and advanced technical subjects in the research area. Through one of the EPSRC's engineering doctorate centres, the cost to the company is only about £6,000-8,000 per year plus the space and access to facilities the company provides - considerably less than employing a graduate directly.
An alternative to sponsoring a full-time student is for one of a company's own employees to undertake a PhD part-time. This works well if the research undertaken is closely associated with the employee's normal full-time job, although the employee must be prepared to do background research and the writing of their thesis in their own time. This sponsorship of employees to undertake a PhD is a cost-effective way of obtaining university expertise through their supervisors' input.
Knowledge Transfer Partnerships
Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) are designed to transfer university knowledge to a company through the KTP associate, a person employed by the university who is advised and supervised by university staff, but who works full-time at a company site.
The associate may be a new graduate at bachelor, masters or doctoral level or may already have work experience. The project is typically one or two years in duration. Government funding of KTPs, particularly for small or medium-sized companies, significantly reduces the cost of employing the associate during the project and at the same time pays for the university's input.
Joint grant applications
There are a number of bodies, such as the EPSRC and other research councils, who will support selected projects with funding ranging from a few thousands of pounds to several hundreds of thousands. This can enable significant collaborative research projects to be undertaken, covering the costs of employing suitably qualified staff, the equipment they will need and any expenses they will incur. Clearly there is much competition for this finding so there is no guarantee an application will be successful, but the potential rewards make the effort to put together an application very worthwhile.
There are many ways that universities and industry can work together, from a small-scale, relatively cost-free exercise to raise students' awareness of the company to in-depth working together to find product and process improvements that benefit the company as well as the university's research profile. The opportunities are many so, if your company is interested, the universities are always ready to discuss the possibilities with you.
Ray Dawson and Iain Phillips are from the Department of Computer Science at Loughborough University.