Colleges have key role to play in maximising SME innovation

23 Oct 2020, 12:00

The post-Covid business recovery is going to rely on innovation as never before. And this is where FE colleges will prove crucial, says Marguerite Hogg.

Earlier this year during lockdown, the Association of Colleges ran the first home learning webinars, where colleges and technology providers shared advice and ideas about online teaching and learning.

What was apparent was not only how quickly the sector adapted to partial closure but how much excellent and innovative online practice was already in place. Colleges find ways to innovate every day. As
the UK continues to grapple with Covid-19, never has there been a more crucial time to cement the link between colleges, innovation and business.

During the summer the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) released the results of its UK Innovation Survey 2019. It is impossible to read the survey findings without thinking about how productivity, skills and the labour market run in parallel. The results showed an 11 percentage
point decrease in innovation activity within UK businesses, down to 38 per cent, and the perhaps unsurprising outcome that large businesses are more likely to have innovated than small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). The average college works with hundreds of local SMEs and trains 1,300 apprentices. While the BEIS survey reported that there is some collaboration with higher education institutions, there is an untapped resource available in colleges.

We ran our own survey in the summer to gauge what colleges are doing to support innovation growth and development with SMEs and businesses in their local areas. Colleges are well-placed to help their network of local SMEs, who do not always have the connections or capacity to adopt and benefit from new technology and business practices in order to improve their own productivity. There are mutual
benefits of innovation activity with SMEs as shared knowledge can be brought into the curriculum to directly support and improve the employability skills of students and apprentices.

Currently, a lack of capital funding limits colleges from developing specific innovation spaces within colleges and a lack of financial support stops them from being able to fund business innovation account managers to work with SMEs along with time constraints.

If, in the FE Reform white paper, the government sets out a national remit for colleges to lead in this space, along with the provision of support in capital and revenue funding, this will be a significant leap forward.

We would also recommend that better collaboration between further education colleges in local areas should be encouraged in order to share best practice.

Equally important, colleges need to secure resources to enable time alleviation, giving college staff the time and space to engage in innovation development and research activities.

The BEIS report reveals that one of the success factors for those businesses that actively innovate is the higher number of employees who hold a degree or higher-level qualification in comparison to those non-innovating businesses.

In fact, according to the survey results, the ratio of higher skilled/qualified employees to lower skilled employees is slightly higher for SMEs than it is for large businesses. There’s huge opportunity to look at skills at levels 3 to 5 and how they may be equally useful, and the role colleges play in training at these levels and at higher levels.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the UK government was turning towards its ambitious “levelling-up” agenda. Colleges, as community hubs, play a central role in ensuring that no one is left behind. The AoC’s recently published bi-annual research shows that 68 per cent of SMEs have said that to both “thrive and survive”, skills must be a top priority.

We’ve already seen colleges innovating swiftly in response to Covid-19, for example, by producing 3D printed face shields for the NHS. Time and time again colleges prove themselves to be responsive, innovative and resilient. A national innovation remit for FE, appropriately resourced, won’t help the country just in times of crisis but in times of stability, growth and opportunity, enabling colleges to lead in this space to initiate a place-based business and skills innovation revolution.

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