The industry faces the university challenge

A new report voices the design industry’s concern about universities encroaching on commercial territory. Gina Lovett investigates

Unfair competition can cause outrage at the best of times, but when conditions are tough it will inevitably make people’s blood boil.

An issue that has been quietly simmering away since being highlighted in Design Week last September – the encroaching of university research activity and public sector-supported innovation initiatives on commercial design consultancies (DW 11 September 2008) – has come to the boil again.

The ongoing debate – which centres around allegations of publicly funded university business spin-offs undercutting design consultancies, and the promotion of inferior design services which may damage the industry’s reputation – has now been formalised in a report called Delivering the Innovation Dream, commissioned at the behest of the Department for Universities, Innovation & Skills and released last week by British Design Innovation (DW 26 March).

BDI is essentially calling on DIUS to reassess its policy of putting higher education institutes ahead of the commercial design industry in driving the delivery of its innovation strategy.

The roots of the existing policy go back to the Government’s 2005 Cox Review, in which it was suggested that higher education institutes have a role to play in developing the UK economy through innovation, and that schemes allowing for the transfer of knowledge between research departments and small- to medium-sized enterprises should be set up to facilitate this.

The report claims that schemes which aim to improve the competitiveness of SMEs through design and innovation – such as the regional development agencies’ Innovation Vouchers Scheme – are, in fact, excluding the very industry they aim to promote.

Indeed, the design support scheme provided by the Manufacturing Advisory Service East Midlands to local SMEs – co-funded by the Department for Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform and the East Midlands Development Agency – states that work can only be supplied by Leicester’s De Montfort University, with no openings for local consultancies.

So, why is DIUS putting so much emphasis on universities delivering innovation strategy, and not commercial design practices?

According to Jonathan Butters, co-author of the BDI report and founder of Butters Innovation, an inherent lack of understanding of the design industry within Government is at the heart of the problem.

He points out that the transfer of responsibility for ‘innovation through science and technology’ from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to DIUS in 2007 left the design industry ‘floating’, without a champion.

Butters asks, ‘Which Government department writing innovation policy really understands an industry that doesn’t have Standard Industrial Classification codes, and that is too small, too complicated and too ill-defined to deliver any data?’

Also on BDI’s appeal list is the Higher Education Funding Council for England, whose rigorous Research Assessment Exercise criteria – which determine the research funds universities receive – appear to be exacerbating the problem. Under those criteria, universities are required to prove that they are engaging with business in innovation and playing their part in driving the economy forward. HEFCE last month boosted overall research funding by 4 per cent, with the University of Nottingham, Loughborough University and the University of Kent seeing multimillion-pound increases (www.designweek., 5 March). Others, like University of the Arts London and the Royal College of Art, had theirs significantly cut.

With research funding so critical, it is little wonder that the academic sector is scrambling to offer free or subsidised training, consultancy, product development and design services to SMEs to generate economic results and help ensure the continuity of research funding.

‘We’re only doing what we’re measured on and being asked to do,’ says Central St Martins College of Art and Design director of enterprise and innovation Dani Salvadori.

‘We have to report to HEFCE, and our funding depends on this type of engagement,’ she adds.

Coventry University Design Hub incoming programmes manager Sara Lines explains that the Cox Report sent out a strong message for higher education institutes to engage with business more. ‘Universities have to take an active role as a driver of economic growth, and, with a shrinking home market [with caps on student numbers], income needs to be supplemented,’ she says.

Though universities are simply fulfilling their obligations, the increase in their commercial activity has angered private-sector design consultancies, which feel that some universities are going beyond the call of innovation.

Butters cites Bolton University, which in 2007 offered free design consultancy for entrepreneur Imran Hakim’s iTeddy despite the work being largely straightforward, as an example.

Bolton University’s deputy vice-chancellor Peter Marsh explains that it took on the project as a live brief that would give students technical experience. ‘Much of the work involves making facilities available that the private sector does not have. It’s a matter of judgement on what basis we have these projects. There are no rules. Universities are actively encouraged to develop what the Government terms knowledge transfer and enterprise, and, on that basis, we work with SMEs,’ he says.

Butters asks, ‘Why is a university doing design work for a millionaire? Is it prestige, or publicity? It shows the university is just doing it to promote itself.’

Butters recounts further tales of losing business to universities through being undercut on price, suggesting that this practice is counter-productive, and leads to the perception of design as ‘a cheap commodity, rather than a high-end investment’.

With arguments on both sides, debate will rage on for some time. Any resolution is likely to centre on establishing the parameters of universities’ commercial activities, and determining at which point they should ‘pass the baton’ to the commercial sector.

Lines says, ‘The view of higher education bodies is to fulfil a particular support role to commercial design. We introduce SMEs to the design ladder, so that they understand investment in innovation. We’re trying to be a gateway to design.

‘I agree with the report’s recommendations that there needs to be more best practice. We’d all benefit from a direct approach with opinion-formers, through DIUS and the Design Council, to clarify the role of higher education bodies as part of the broader innovation agenda,’ she adds.

To view the report, visit

BDI REPORT Recommendations

• Universities and the private sector should build closer working relationships

• The terms and conditions of funding bids should be inclusive, transparent and widely publicised

• Private-sector design consultancies should be included in regional development agency innovation schemes

• Best practice procurement strategies should be implemented

• University design lecturers should be disallowed from running private-sector commercial companies

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