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Our friends in academia

Industries that wanted to poach university talent now prefer to build partnerships, says Stephen Pritchard
Although it would be an exaggeration to talk of a brain-drain, academics who are able to market their skills in the private sector are tempted to do so. In certain fields, primarily but not exclusively the sciences, well-qualified academics can often double their salaries by moving to industry.

Years of falling pay and less time for research because of increasing numbers of students to teach drives many lecturers into the waiting arms of big business, depleting the stock of academic experience in the universities. But some sectors of industry believe that an exodus of academics, especially the younger, brighter minds, poses serious threats to their recruitment plans, and are now paying people to stay in universities. The poacher truly turned gamekeeper.

Some businesses believe that if the best staff leave the universities, the quality of teaching available to undergraduates will fall and, ultimately, this will cost them money.

Esso and ICI are offering fellowships to academics in chemical engineering. Both are recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The companies pay awards, around pounds 6,000 in the first year, with declining amounts for four more years, in return for some of the academics' time in consultancy.

The schemes are intended as a partnership. The academics are less likely to be tempted away from university, and have more time to devote to their research. The companies build stronger relationships with the universities, and, in the fellows, have friendly faces in the faculties who can steer graduates in the companies' direction.

ICI introduced its fellowship, now run jointly with Zeneca, for young chemical engineers in 1989. Dr David Parker, who is responsible for the company's relations with the university sector, says there is a particular problem in chemical engineering, where good graduates can attract far greater salaries than their academic peers.

Dr Parker describes the objectives of the scheme as "assisting the UK engineering industry by promoting the recruitment and retention of the best young faculty members".

For ICI, there was more than one benefit to the scheme. "It was seen to be the sort of thing we should be doing anyway, to promote good relations, but there was also a realisation that chemical engineering was likely to atrophy because of a lack of young lecturers," Dr Parker explains.

Esso sees its scheme on similar lines, although it places more emphasis on teaching, while ICI looks more towards research. The company believes that the scheme gives valuable recognition to fellows, who have to compete for places, says its public affairs officer, Martin Tims.

Academics who have received awards feel that they have benefited, without being asked for onerous commitments of time by their sponsors.

Dr David Faraday, who holds an Esso award at Surrey University, believes one reason he was selected was his work in building transferable skills into undergraduate degrees. He had previously worked with Esso arranging industrial placements for his students.

"My contacts in the company were saying that I was the sort of person they wanted to stay in academia," Dr Faraday recalls. "It is not wonderfully paid, and the temptation is always there to go into industry."

The fellowship makes a difference, but it has also given him a closer relationship with industry. This makes it easier to ensure that what he teaches reflects the skills his students will need when they graduate.

There are academic benefits, too. "There are opportunities for me to develop research links, and, hopefully, I will be able to pass on my knowledge to people in the company. It's a two-way process," he says.