A lack of funding is holding colleges back from hiring “specific business innovation account managers” to help initiate an “innovation revolution”, a new survey has suggested.

The Association of Colleges has today published research into the college sector’s role in supporting the development of new and existing businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Of the 65 colleges that responded, 78 per cent (51) said they currently offer support through “dedicated account managers who work with or offer growth support to specific local businesses and/or SMEs”.

However, half of those colleges providing account managers said the roles did not provide “specific industry sector technical level support”.

According to the survey, one college indicated that the business develop co-ordinators they employ are “not qualified or experienced enough to offer high level technical support or growth and that the salary level required for someone qualified to undertake the necessary level of consultancy would be untenable for the college when based on return on investment”.

Meanwhile, more than 90 per cent of the responding colleges said they did not offer “innovation zones” for local businesses, while 60 per cent do not provide any space for SMEs to “engage with each other and stimulate innovation and business ideas”.

When asked to consider which barriers would have to be removed in order for them to consider increasing support for business innovation, 72 per cent of colleges (47) said there was a “lack of financial support to fund specific business innovation account managers” and 75 per cent (49) cited a lack of capital funding to develop business innovation spaces.

The AoC’s report said: “Some colleges recognise that they could do more with additional sector specific, technical staff to provide direct technical support for SMEs and to support innovation and development activity. Lack of funding and limited resources impact on what can be offered.”

The association has now called on the government to “provide support in capital and revenue funding and set out a national remit for colleges to lead in this space to initiate a place-based business and skills innovation revolution”.

AoC chief executive David Hughes said: “Colleges want to do more to support SMEs to develop their innovation, business and skills strategies and help attract inward investment. Their work with businesses is a key priority and it brings important knowledge exchange to help inform curriculum and offer students real-life experiences.  With the right tailored support from the government and national recognition, colleges could do so much more in this space.

“The foundations are there to build on. With stronger partnerships and sufficient funding and time, colleges could play a greater role in providing innovation support to local businesses and SMEs.”

He added that he would “urge” the Department for Education to use the upcoming FE white paper to “make the case for business innovation and a real turning point for colleges.

“We could quickly create a system that allows colleges to lead the way in a business innovation and skills revolution as the economy recovers.”

The DfE was approached for comment.