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Industrial-strength success

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships are one of higher education's best-kept secrets. Olga Wojtas looks at what their future may hold

Physicist Sir Sam Edwards founded the Teaching Companies Scheme, now Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, 30 years ago - when the Wilson Government was in power and the cutting edge of technology meant calculators and digital watches.

Since then thousands of small businesses have benefited from the scheme, which utilises research expertise to improve companies' bottom lines. But the partnerships have remained the quiet success story of higher education - and are still unknown to many academics and businesses.

The Lambert report on business and higher education links is the most recent official document to praise the success of the partnerships. But it notes that they should be strengthened and better marketed.

Anna Thornton, business development manager at King's College London's School of Physical Sciences and Engineering, said the scheme was described as the Department of Trade and Industry's "best-kept secret". The concept of the partnership is a very simple one: new graduates, known as associates, many of whom have a postgraduate degree, tackle a project that is crucial for the company's development, supported by both an academic and a business mentor. The DTI and a host of other public sector sponsors, including research councils and regional development agencies fund up to two thirds of the partnership for small companies and half for large companies. Projects last from 18 months to three years.

David Brown, manager of the West of Scotland KTP Centre, said many academics were unaware of the scheme's evolution. "Despite the clear benefits of a KTP, many people still associate them with engineering and computing, which were perhaps the more traditional origins of the TCS."

Many were still aimed at developing a particular product, Dr Brown said, but projects could range from process improvement to effective marketing, and involve partnerships with public bodies such as the National Health Service.

The West of Scotland Centre, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year, has a portfolio of 155 projects worth more than £16.5 million, from Artex Rawlplug and Babcock to Cadbury and Highland Spring. The income now counts towards the research assessment exercise, and the Government estimates that each project yields an average of two research papers.

Richard Pethrick, professor of pure and applied chemistry at Strathclyde University, admitted that some academics may be unenthusiastic, since these would not be high-profile papers in prestige journals. "But they can produce reasonable publications and open up interesting new areas," he said. "I primarily got into them about 20 years ago to create jobs in Scotland for the graduates I was producing. I'm English, but it seemed to me to be silly to say 'If you want a job, go down to England'."

He has four KTP programmes, with the associates working within his team of 17 researchers. But they also gain extra training under the scheme. "This type of industrial involvement and the management skills training they receive is invaluable in their future careers. They also gain targeted problem-solving skills, which can equip them for their future work in either fundamental or applied research," Professor Pethrick said.

Hilary Smith, collaborative partnerships manager at Southampton University, agreed that associates were highly employable.

"The proportion of associates staying in the company is quite high. About 75 per cent are offered a post and about 75 per cent of those accept," she said.

Partnerships are advertised through a DTI website - http:///www.ktponline.org.uk/  - and are attracting increasing numbers of overseas graduates.

Reading University, which has about 50 KTPs at any one time - one of the highest rates in the country - said that about 30 per cent of its associates were from overseas. There are currently a record 1,000 KTPs across the country, a 17 per cent rise on the previous year.

Ms Smith reported a dramatic increase over the past year at Southampton.

For the past two decades, it has typically had two or three partnerships at any one time, but now has 12 associates on ten schemes.

She said she was unsure why this was the case. "Momenta, which runs the scheme for the DTI, has done quite a lot of marketing, and I can only assume this is beginning to pay off." But she warned that if KTPs ceased to be the DTI's best-kept secret, the Government would have to increase the budget significantly.

"There has always been this tension that the universities would like more support, but the last thing anybody wants is a large marketing drive because there just wouldn't be the resources," she said.

One of the great attractions is the high success rate of proposals, but this could plummet if a large increase in proposals meant they could not be filtered correctly. "The message is that it's successful, and we would like a bigger budget. I think everybody would like that," Ms Smith said.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk


Bowled over by plastic moulds and balanced bias: Research opportunity at Strathclyde University

A Strathclyde University KTP scheme was Frenchwoman Perrine Redon's first introduction to the world of bowls. "I knew about ten-pin bowling but I'd never heard about bowls," she said.

But Dr Redon is now midway through a 27-month project to find out why some bowls wobble more than others. The problem was identified by Britain's oldest lawn-bowls manufacturer, Thomas Taylor (Bowls) Ltd, which has been making bowls for 200 years. Using a patented technique, it puts molten plastic in moulds and then machines in the requisite bias with computer-controlled lathes. But some bowls formed with a different bias, which has proved to be nothing to do with the lathes, but is caused by differences in the structure of the moulds.

Dr Redon, who took a PhD in organic chemistry at Sheffield University, is now using polymer chemistry to create a more predictable plastic. She sees the KTP scheme as a useful halfway house towards a career in industry, having ruled out postdoctoral work since she didn't want to be a full-time academic.

As the company is too small to have research facilities, she spends most of her time at Strathclyde. She works alongside 17 researchers including three other KTP associates.

She added: "I'd be happy to stay with with the company." But she remains immune to the bowling bug: "I can see how it's addictive, but I don't think it's for me."

KTP INITIATIVES ACROSS THE UK

  • The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society's wildlife centre hopes to raise its profile with the help of Aberdeen University's School of Biological Science.
  • Electronic and electrical engineers at Loughborough University have designed and developed electronic aids for disabled people for Autochair, a family business that specialises in products for wheelchair users, particularly disabled drivers.
  • The Royal College of Music has helped identify and archive important documents and material belonging to the international music publisher Boosey & Hawkes.
  • Reading University's School of Food Biosciences is developing a range of branded speciality food and drink for wholesaler Cotswold Fayre Limited.
  • Southampton University's Institute for Sound and Vibration Research is developing models to improve inflight refuelling systems for Flight Refuelling Ltd.
  • Coca Cola Bottlers (Ulster) Ltd has become more competitive and profitable with the help of Ulster University's School of Business Organisation and Management.
  • The centre for advanced software technology at the University of Wales Bangor has created a new intranet for the discount book company The Book People Limited.

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