Academic Research and the Commercial Sector: How to Fit Your Work into the Third Stream

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

This article will discuss how universities are increasingly looking towards working with the commercial sector in order to overcome their financial problems and what that development means for the ordinary lecturer or researcher.

What is ‘third stream'?

It is likely if you work in a UK university or institution of higher education you will have heard discussion over the last few years of third stream activities. This is a method of attracting extra funds to a particular institution by having researchers and lecturers work on projects in partnership with commercial organisations.

The name ‘third stream' originated because it is the third in the series of activities that academics undertake, the first two being undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and the more traditional research and publishing activities. As well as enhancing the institution's reputation, third stream activities are intended to benefit the reputation of the UK in an increasingly global academic market place.

Why is ‘third stream' funding necessary?

The government want more and more students to go to university and so the pressure to find more resources and staff to teach these increased numbers is high. Universities are increasingly competing with one another for this potential body of students and offering state of the art programmes and resources is used to attract ever-increasing numbers of students. However, successive governments have been less than keen to offer more money to pay for this so universities have to come up with alternative ways to earn money.

Which institutions are becoming involved in these activities?

The short answer is: all of them!

The more prestigious Russell Group universities (those institutions who are leading the way in research activities already) are very keen to maximise their third stream projects and build on their already excellent research reputations. The twenty institutions in the group already attract two-thirds of the country's external research funding so they are in a good position to move into third-stream activities. Russell Group institutions want to continue to attract world-class researchers so that they might continue to enhance their reputation: this relationship works in a cyclical manner.

So, attracting the best people is a key challenge for these universities. They see their competition as coming mostly from the United States where different funding regimes, especially huge college endowments, allow certain institutions to undertake the expansion of research and teaching programmes. But also developing countries like China and India are entering into the market with large publicly funded research projects designed to lure researchers away from more traditional bases in Europe and America.

Other UK universities that are less well-known for their research and that have been more teaching-focussed also want to get involved in third stream activities as a way of boosting their research reputations. With traditional external funding, such as that from funding councils, so difficult to acquire, it is possible to use third stream activities to bring in extra cash.

So, for example, what is a third stream activity?

It's difficult to work out what this concept might mean for your own work without some examples, so here are a few:

  • Pilot projects with employers to improve their management training
  • Offering continuing professional development courses to staff in a particular company
  • Working with trades unions and public sector bodies to improve education provision in a local area
  • Collaboration between students and outside professionals on projects and research for the public good.

As you can see, these activities need not only be designed to enhance the financial standing of an institution, but can also bring non-traditional learners into the university and make the university a key part of the local community, both of which are goals that have been set by the government anyway.

What does this mean for me as an academic?

On reading this you are probably sighing and thinking ‘don't they think I have enough to do already?' and in many cases lecturers and researchers are already researching under budget restraints, trying to meet tight deadlines and sometimes while juggling heavy teaching loads as well. It is difficult to imagine how another ‘stream' of activities could be fitted in, especially one that requires time spent in collaboration with others undertaking strategic planning, as well as the time taken to run the projects or courses. But financial pressures are reaching a critical point in many institutions and soon these pressures will be transferred from upper management to the lecturer ‘at the chalk face'. If you get involved at an early stage, chances are you will be able to craft with your management team an enjoyable and mutually beneficial involvement in third stream activities, rather than being forced into a project to which you have no real dedication.

You will not be expected to act alone on this; many universities have a Research and Development Office that will have strategies in place for developing links with local businesses and communities. Training and discussion opportunities will be made available for those involved at an institutional, local and national level.

Even if you do not have the time to act on this now, bear ‘third stream' in mind for the future. Many people think that this sort of fundraising is the way that the generation of university finances will move in the future.  

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