Press release

Universities and small businesses lose out by not working together

Universities and small businesses have much to offer each other – but can’t always see beyond their biases - according to a new report launched today by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).


Today’s report outlines the findings from a series of projects supported through the UK Futures Programme testing how local ‘anchor institutions’, such as universities, can use their expertise and influence to develop leadership and entrepreneurship skills in small businesses. In so doing, anchor institutions stand to gain:

  • An opportunity to tackle local skills issues and tailor to the needs of the local economy;
  • Develop relationships with new partners that could support the evolving devolution agenda;
  • An additional market for trading expertise among small, ambitious businesses.

Universities in particular may be put off developing offers for small firms because of a bias that it is a difficult market to serve with varying needs. The Federation of Small Businesses has recently recommended universities could overcome these biases to develop a more systematic offer for small businesses. On the other side, our projects show some small businesses have their own biases about universities and are wary of academic learning styles they thought universities were offering. But universities in this programme fought back by delivering essential management skills through ‘hands-on’ learning methods. Teesside University brought in a range of partners to help deliver their leadership programme to small firms in the area, including the Drama Department.

Elaine Hooker, at Teesside University says:

“‘Leading Roles’ was our most popular session with the most favourable feedback from businesses. It was a performance masterclass which uses theatre and drama to explore key issues in leadership and management. The group were able to share knowledge and experience in a creative and professionally structured context and expand their range of skills in: emotional intelligence and rapport, effective and inspired communication and self-presentation, handling conflict, sensitive issues and difficult conversations. I think they were surprised that as a university we taught in that way, but universities have long since taken on board that there are many different learning techniques, we need to get that message out more widely.”

The report highlights a series of characteristics that successful anchor institutions display in order to reach out to small businesses and to successfully develop their leadership skills:

  • Partnerships that draw on the strengths of different local organisations, add more to the sum of their parts.
  • The projects were delivered by a range of partnerships, including between Causeway Enterprise Agency, the local Council and the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland; and between Newcastle University Business School and large employers with a strong presence in the area.
  • The profile of these organisations usually attracted small firms because they had a good reputation or could offer access to other services, such as Innovation Advisers that were offered in Teesside University’s project.
  • Offering a structured but flexible learning programme, responsive to busy small businesses.

Successful partnerships are built on established relationships, mutual interest and time commitment. Where personal relationships already existed, and organisational interests were aligned, partnerships got off to a smoother start, those which had to develop these partnerships took longer to get the building blocks in place.

Julie Kenny CBE, UKCES Commissioner says:

“It’s great to see so many organisations finding new ways of engaging small businesses and breaking down the barriers. I was encouraged to see different types of organisation come forward to take up our challenge and what they have all shown us is that there is no ‘one size fits all’. Councils, Chambers, Colleges, Universities, any institution with a strong local profile can support growth in their locality by developing small businesses. And if they do that in partnership with others, so much the better. I am really excited to share these findings with my Local Enterprise Partnership and more widely.”

There is a huge potential for anchor institutions to work together, overcome barriers and biases and develop management skills in local small businesses. The report published today highlights that potential and shows how it can be reached.

Graham Hartley, Managing Director, Siemens Power Generation says:

“The SME community both nationally and locally is key to sustainable economic growth for the region and the UK, and the need to continue to develop the skills base and enhance management skills in this area is vital. As Chair of the Captured steering group, I have seen fantastic benefits for the businesses and managers who have participated. This is something Siemens is keen to support in the long term and we look forward to working with Newcastle University Business School in the future.”

David Eglinton, Director, HCVF Television says:

“Catalyst gives me such a valuable opportunity, which quite frankly, I have never had before, to get away from the office to help focus on my business practices with the assistance of industry professionals. Literally, every few minutes there are light bulb moments where my current practices are challenged as I learn new ways to help make my business and the way I do things work and function better. The quality of the resources and teaching has been first class and it is extremely humbling when I see how much time and effort has been put into making Catalyst happen. I’ve really been equipped for life and only wish I had been able to access a Catalyst course years ago, so thank you”

The full evaluation report for this Productivity Challenge is available on

Published 5 August 2016