Third Stream Activities: Broaden Your Career Horizons

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By Catherine Armstrong

Many academics will be familiar with the idea of third stream activities, if only because a directive encouraging academics to adapt their work to it has come from senior management level. However, the third stream is also important for jobseekers because employers will be looking for evidence of this in both job applicants and current members of staff.

What is the third stream?

Third stream activities are revenue-raising activities that academics undertake alongside their more traditional work of teaching and research (which form the first two ‘streams'). Third stream activities include liaisons with commercial companies, including such things as professional development courses being taught by lecturers. It can also involve working with public sector institutions. This includes, for example, putting on exhibitions at galleries or museums. It can involve one-off consultancies or working on long-term research projects. Another example is the knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) where research posts are jointly funded by private initiatives and universities. KTP posts are available mostly in the fields of science, technology and engineering.

How do universities promote these activities?

Many universities now have policies in place to promote third stream activities. Central management teams in universities work to promote any type of research activity. Usually, they help members of the academic staff to apply for external funding, but a large part of their work now is undertaking third stream activities.

Why do universities want to promote third stream work?

What is in it for the universities? These activities provide an obvious revenue stream. But also the government looks favourably on such efforts and perhaps offer that university more public funding.

What is the government's policy on third stream activities?

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a report on third stream activities showing that, while universities are beginning to engage with the idea, there is still a long way to go. Here is an extract from their report:

1. ‘Third stream' activities in the UK universities have come a long way. Significant cultural change is beginning to take place. And yet, everyone in the sector thinks that cultural change has only begun - and that it has some way to go. The third stream still deserves some protected status - and in that sense, it has not yet reached a steady state. This means that the next phase has to be another one of dynamic change, with another and further transition in the longer term expected before it reaches a steady state.
2. HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) are proposing to create a permanent funding stream based on a formula to provide a sustained incentive and support for third stream activities. This is a welcome change, as most observers (both inside and outside the sector) see the need for stable funding for further development of third stream activities.
3. However, public funding support for third stream activities is not easy to design. ‘Third stream activities' need to remain very diverse as each university should respond to external needs in its own way, and so it is vital that government support should not lead to straitjacketing or even to narrowing its focus.

This is what HEFCE themselves say about third stream activities:

The report finds there has been considerable progress over the first 10 years of funding specifically for third stream activity. There is strong evidence of additionality in terms of activity funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund and progress by all HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) in embedding knowledge transfer within their mission. Initial concerns about whether emphasis on third stream activity would impact negatively on traditional teaching and research roles have proven to be unfounded. Many synergies between knowledge exchange, teaching and research have been realised and there is greater recognition, by both academics and external organisations, of the value and benefits of working together on a diverse range of problems and initiatives.

How does that affect me as a jobseeker?

First there will be an increasing number of third stream jobs to apply for, especially research-focussed Knowledge Transfer Partnerships in the fields of science, technology and engineering. Getting one of these posts will benefit your career development as you will experience working in the public and private sectors.

In other fields where KTPs are less prevalent, employers will still be keen to find applicants to fill traditional university-based lectureships and research posts who already have an idea about where they fit in to the third stream agenda. When you are applying for a post look at the university's website to see what activities they currently support. This might give you some idea about where your work might fit in.
If you are currently in a job and looking to boost your career profile by expanding into third stream activities then talk to someone in your Research and Development Office. They will be able to advise you on the best way to adapt your own interests to this new revenue stream.

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