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Greater small business and universities engagement key to boosting growth

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Small businesses and universities must engage at a deeper level and collaborate in more innovative ways if the relationship is to yield greater benefits for both groups and the local economies in which they are rooted.

In a new report, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) argues that universities have a significant role to play in supporting their local enterprise ecosystem. FSB has long believed that supporting entrepreneurship among young people must be embedded at all levels of education. ‘Enterprising Allies’, FSB’s latest policy paper on small business – university engagement highlights a range of other areas where business and universities can collaborate, including research and development (R&D), procurement and fostering spin-outs.

However, many of these opportunities are not currently being harnessed to their full potential. Fundamentally, awareness on both sides is a barrier – with a lack of knowledge or understanding on how to collaborate and the benefits it can bring. This is especially the case for small firms, many of whom do not engage with universities and may be missing opportunities as a result.

Gordon Millward, FSB Regional Chairman, said: “Both small businesses and universities can have a big impact on their local community. In their local communities, universities procure goods and services, are hubs for innovation and R&D, and are magnets for attracting global talent. In turn, small firms play a crucial role in growing the economy, creating jobs and investing in the local community.

“Our report makes a clear case for universities and businesses investing time and resources in this mutually beneficial relationship. Places where small businesses would normally go for information such as LEPs or Growth Hubs, could become touchpoints, informing businesses about the benefits of, and opportunities for, engagement.

“We also want small businesses to be proactive too and encourage them to explore opportunities to engage and find new ways to make the most out of their relationship with their local university.”

The report shows that many universities already engage with local businesses in the areas of graduate recruitment, work placements and mentoring. While there is a still a lot more that can be done to widen engagement in these areas, there is also real scope to explore the possibilities of more commercial collaborations, where universities can play a deeper role in enterprise development from directly delivering business support to helping to finance new ventures.

Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, said: “Our world-class universities are the engines of our knowledge economy. Recent research shows small firms collaborating with them are up to 38 per cent more likely to develop and introduce new innovations to market, supporting growth and jobs.

“That’s why our new Higher Education White Paper sets out plans to make it easier for new and specialist universities to be established, meeting the demand for high quality education and research in new regions and industries.”

Ann Keims, chief executive, Chartered Association of Business Schools, said: “We commend FSB for undertaking this important research. Business schools have an excellent track record at engaging with small businesses through consultancy, student work placements and start-up incubators.

“The Small Business Charter provides business schools with a mark of quality which helps small businesses identify universities with business schools that can help their business.

“With world class business expertise residing in business schools they represent an excellent gateway for small businesses to access universities. As is recommended in this report, we will be working with our members, LEPs and other key local players like FSB to demonstrate the value to small businesses of engaging with a business school.”

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