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A civic university: Sheffield’s heritage

The University of Sheffield was formed through financial support from the people of Sheffield. Penny donations were given to establish a university that would benefit the local economy, public health and children’s futures.

This civic responsibility is embedded in our very foundations. However, it’s one thing to know that this is both the right and the best thing to do, and quite another to make it happen naturally. That takes resource, investment and strategic decisions about what to do (and what not to) in the best interests of the institution and wider stakeholders.

“As a University founded by local industrialists and working people, Sheffield has a keen sense of our duty to do good for local communities. The question is how?

“Some of the difference we make is shared in common with other institutions, e.g. our medical school provides research and trainee doctors for top rated hospitals across our region. But in particular areas of strength we have gone further, using our unique regional position as the preferred research partner of companies such as Boeing, McLaren and Siemens to drive local productivity and near on 1,000 elite manufacturing apprentices.

“To a region hit by the decline of one kind of industry we are also supporting a new industrial revolution globally – Industry 4.0 – with an approach to education which challenges company/university and global/local boundaries. In doing so, we look both locally and outward, driving partnerships with the U.S. and China which benefit communities at home and overseas.”
Professor Sir Keith Burnett, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Sheffield

Particular strengths, unique contribution

The opportunity to secure HEFCE Catalyst Fund investment was timely for the university, allowing us to look at how we could put our significant resources and networks to best use. The ambition was to highlight significant new areas where we could learn from, and build on, the ‘anchor institution’ impact of our world-leading Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).

At AMRC we carry out excellent research in partnership with some of the world’s leading companies, such as Boeing, alongside regional small and medium enterprises (SMEs). It is where we are driving inward investment to a region that is lacking any original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and has one of the lowest private sector research and development (R&D) concentrations in the UK.

The experience gained through building AMRC has shown us the incredible impact that we can have with the right level of focus.

Our plan with the Catalyst Fund project was to focus on two areas that we know have significant and translational research strength and are regional clusters of economic or social opportunity that might have national impact. These were manufacturing, health and care and, crucially, their underpinning digital technologies.

The results have been significant. I’m particularly proud of our novel approach and inclusion of student enterprise in the project, which brought together students with clinicians, designers and materials scientists to create commercialisable innovations.

Partnerships and co-creation

In addition to delivering projects specifically aimed at knowledge exchange and intellectual property commercialisation, we have used the HEFCE Catalyst Fund to establish a team who will scope and renew the focus of our role in the region.

One of our key successes has been the simplest: hotdesking. By working regularly alongside partners we have broken down barriers, built trust and had open conversations about our shared priorities and commitments.

As we built these relationships, our local enterprise partnership (LEP) suggested that we convene a regional Science and Innovation Board. Higher education institutions are unique in their capability to use their convening power and substantial networks to lead and support science and innovation activities and the contribution they can make to reduce the UK’s productivity deficit. It’s our responsibility to do this. A regional board would provide better understanding of the potential economic impact of science and innovation and enable us to develop activity to realise this potential.

Now in its second year of operation, the Science and Innovation Board has carried out smart specialisation work, which led to the delivery of a first wave Science and Innovation Audit (SIA). This has directly informed the new regional strategic economic plan. Whilst the future of SIAs on a national stage is currently unclear, ours has been a catalyst at the regional level for a new level of understanding of the possibilities that tie science and innovation to economic impact.

The beginning, not the end

As our Catalyst Fund project draws to an end, the university continues to take the view that our role as an anchor institution is of strategic importance: to us; to the region; and to the UK economy.

Read more about the HEFCE Catalyst Fund project at the University of Sheffield

Read more about the Catalyst Fund

Browse other blog posts on projects using HEFCE funding