Everyone benefits from university consultancies

It’s important to put into perspective criticism of ‘low-cost product design consultancies’ run by universities (News in Depth, 24 July).

New products and ideas, particularly at the high-tech, low-volume end of the spectrum, are crucial for the sector to compete internationally, so design support is not just a nice-to-have for the pioneering few, it is critical for manufacturers of every shape and size. Despite the strength in depth among design consultancies, this kind of necessary innovation hasn’t been happening at the levels needed to improve the fortunes of the sector, leading to investment from the Government and the European Union. As an existing network of facilities and knowledge, it is natural that universities and colleges would be called in to help, and experience so far has shown they are providing a quality service for businesses.

For example, the West Midlands Technology Network was set up by Coventry University, Staffordshire University, Birmingham City University, the University of Wolverhampton and Walsall College in 2003. Since then it has helped small firms in the region to create and protect more than £85m in sales, as well as create and save 2500 jobs. Schemes like WMTN are essential if the UK is to achieve the Government target on research and development of 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2014, and to be part of the wider EU goal of creating ‘the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world’ by 2010.

Ultimately, the point of involving higher education is to do everything possible to create a more prosperous environment for businesses and the communities. If it can help more small companies to innovate and grow, then more of them will have a future and the revenue to use private design groups. Would leaving it to the market really be a better option for the UK?

Tony Robotham, West Midlands Technology Network, by e-mail

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