SMEs and Universities – Collaboration Can Bring Benefits to All

As Exemplas knows from working closely with the University community there are real and tangible economic benefits to be gained by small businesses working together and exchanging knowledge and skills with universities.

05/06/2015, latest thinking

Much is being done at the moment to facilitate this collaboration and to help universities understand more about the small business community. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)  have released new interactive maps which describe the size, industry sector distribution and characteristics of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across England.

The maps, along with a report to HEFCE by the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC) entitled ‘Collaboration between SMEs and universities – local population, growth and innovation metrics’, are intended to help drive collaboration with small businesses by supporting universities and colleges in identifying opportunities to work with more small business, and to understand and contribute further to the local economy.

Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive, is keen for universities to be at the “centre” of the development of city regions and localities.

The benefit for SMEs and to the local economy could be invaluable but universities need to work hard to be accessible to business owners and business owners need to understand more about how universities can help them. Madelaine Atkins said, on the release of the new maps:

‘HEFCE seeks to ensure that the knowledge, assets, and expertise of our world-leading universities and colleges make a real difference to the people of this country – to students, but also to businesses, public services and citizens.”

“Through HEFCE funding we have sought to place the “anchor” role – the mission to be at the centre of the development of city regions and localities – back at the heart of the concerns of our universities. Our maps and analysis released today will form part of our extensive programme of work with Universities UK to support universities and local stakeholders in furthering the Government’s “place-making” agenda.”

Professor Stephen Roper, Director of the Enterprise Research Centre and Professor of Enterprise at Warwick Business School, said:

‘Our universities and colleges have the potential to make a substantial difference to the competitiveness of SMEs. Universities and colleges can be a valuable source of technical and strategic information for smaller 

companies. They can also act as a gateway through which SMEs can link to wider international knowledge networks and partnerships’.

The Government is committed to a national recovery in the economy that benefits all parts of the country and has set out long term plans to raise the growth rates across all parts of the UK. SMEs are key to this recovery and growth and we must provide effective, targeted, innovative support to help companies to start up and to scale up. SMEs can tap into the technical strengths, know-how and infrastructure of universities to support their growth, innovation and productivity improvement. However universities themselves need support to help them to understand how to tailor their approach to ensure busy SMEs can tap into these strengths effectively.  If this is achieved  and through working with stakeholders like local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and cities to improve the conditions of places to make them more attractive and supportive to enterprise universities bring untold benefits to the local communities and to the economy.

The Witty review of universities and growth highlighted how HEFCE funding, particularly Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF), has been successful in supporting university-SME collaborations, but pointed out that more could be done. Collaborating with SMEs is not a one size fits all exercise. Efforts need be targeted at the right companies and areas to deliver high-value and high-skills employment. The ERC report notes that different types of SMEs may benefit from different higher education collaborations – for example, the optimum type of collaboration may depend on the capability of the SME to innovate, the depth of its technology or knowledge base, the industrial sector it belongs to, or its appetite to grow and innovate.

The ERC report and the newly released maps are a starting point in helping universities to understand the size and makeup of their local SME landscape and therefore to inform opportunities for SMEs to work with universities and local partners to achieve economic development goals.