A national report highlights the potential for local impact

Interview with George Baxter, University of Salford

Academic research and economic development | Volume 4, Issue 1 – 2014

In October 2013 Sir Andrew Witty published a report exploring how UK universities can maximize the potential of their research output and translate it into supporting economic growth. The report underscored the importance of understanding a region’s strengths as a means to spurring economic activity. One way to gain that perspective is via heat maps showing clusters of research activity. 

Q. Is the Witty report on the University of Salford radar?

Over the last 10 years there has been a range of university-business interactions reports sponsored by government. Generally these reports are closely considered and have been the genesis for new structures, funding streams and changes in policy. Consequently, it is very much in our interest to take notice. Salford is a member of the University Alliance, a group of research-informed universities in the UK (vs. the research-intensive Russell Group). The Alliance universities have discussed, debated and looked at a response to the Witty report.

See article PDF for the full image in a larger size. Source: Encouraging a British Invention Revolution: Sir Andrew Witty’s Review of Universities and Growth, 2013publication data from Scopus, analysis and visualization by Elsevier Research Intelligence Analytical Services

Q. Were there any surprises when you reviewed the Witty report data?

We knew Salford was fairly strong in the information economy, but to see us ranked 10th in the country and surrounded mostly by Russell Group universities, we stand out as quite distinctive. That confirmed something that we kind of knew — after all, we do have a campus at Media City collocated with the BBC — but this was independent validation. It has confirmed for us that we are headed in the right direction and that “information economy” should be a major research, learning and teaching focus for us in the future.

Another eye-opening statistic showed that we were fifth in the country in terms of engagement with small to medium enterprises (SMEs). This shows us that we are in a very positive feedback loop. The majority of our students come from the local area, and many hold part-time jobs. It is in our interest to ensure the local economy here in the northwest of England is strong so they have jobs to help support them through their schooling and to provide improved prospects when they graduate.

Conversely, in the Witty report, Salford does not rank in the top 20 in continuing professional development based on 2008–2012 data. In 2011 we launched a wholly owned company to pull together all the continuing-education offerings across various schools and faculties, strengthen our programs, and streamline our back office processes. If you looked at our position now, Salford would likely be in 12th or 13th position. Advanced training in support of the local workforce will also benefit business.

Q. What other ways are you looking at impact?

Our office has several key functions, including supporting academics in bidding for and managing funding, providing services related to the commercial exploitation of our intellectual property and, lastly, supporting the Research Excellence Framework (REF) submission. The REF is a comprehensive government assessment of research impact that informs the amount of research funding received by universities in the UK.

In 2014, for the first time, the assessment will look at the reach and significance of economic, political or social impact, depending on the subject. It became obvious to us when we were compiling case studies to demonstrate our research excellence that we have had a fantastic impact on people’s lives — from a piece of technology to improve home insulation and cut heating bills, to social impact through improved healthcare, to microloans for people who might otherwise go to high-interest loan companies. Historically, Salford grew out of the Industrial Revolution movement and has had a mission to provide education for local people. In compiling these case studies it was apparent that we are not only continuing to have an impact, but also deepening our day-to-day impact on the region. By sharing these case studies with prospective students, we can differentiate ourselves as a university where theory is tied to practice. 

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