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The maps, along with a report from the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC) that informs the mapping, are intended to help universities and colleges in identifying opportunities to collaborate with more SMEs, and to understand and contribute further to the local economy [Note 1].

Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive, said:

‘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 [Note 2]. 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’.

This work addresses the Government’s commitment to a national recovery in the economy that benefits all parts of the country. The Government has set out long-term plans to raise the growth rate across all parts of England, and highlighted the importance of helping companies to start up and to scale up. Universities can provide technical strengths, know-how and infrastructure to support SME growth, innovation and productivity improvement. They can also work with local stakeholders like local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and cities to improve the conditions of places to make them more attractive and supportive to enterprise.

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 [Note 3]. HEFCE is working with the ERC to understand opportunities for increased collaborations, so that higher education can target its efforts at the right companies and areas to deliver high-value and high-skills employment. Place-making and help to SMEs are also themes of the HEFCE Catalyst Fund, which supports innovative approaches to key challenges.

Case studies

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.

Where SME productivity is higher, or there are more medium-sized firms, then professional development may be the best focus for collaboration:

‘York recognises the importance of [continuing professional development] as a key enabler in raising skills and increasing their transferability, and continues to invest through HEIF […]. The university, as an anchor of the regional knowledge economy, also has a role responding to the training needs of regional companies and will maintain and build programmes of local relevance, working where necessary with other providers. In addition, the sector-wide Training Gateway will help to address skills gaps across the UK and provide a clear point of access for private and public sector organisations through which to identify UK universities and colleges who can provide the training they need.’

– University of York, HEIF 2011-15 strategy

Where SMEs are in high-tech sectors, collaborative and contract research may be best model:

‘…working with banks, financial institutions, investors and SMEs, new models for research and development and subsequent downstream investment have been developed. HEIF will provide resources to test and implement these investment models. These models seek to remove risks and barriers to innovation investment for both the investor and the SME, whilst reducing dependence on public sector funding for applied university research.’

– De Montfort University, HEIF 2011-15 strategy

The ERC report and maps show how the size and makeup of SMEs in a local enterprise partnership area can inform opportunities for universities to work with local stakeholders to achieve economic development goals. The maps may also help more effective collaborations between local areas and universities across the country – the ‘smart specialisation agenda’.

Notes

1. The interactive maps and ‘Collaboration between SMEs and universities – local population, growth and innovation metrics’, report to HEFCE by the Enterprise Research Centre can be found on the HEFCE website.

2. HEFCE supports university-SME collaboration and the anchor role of universities particularly through funding schemes such as HEIF and Catalyst Fund.

3. Read the Government response to the Witty review (along with links to the original report).

4. HEFCE has appointed Kevin Richardson as its Local Growth Consultant. HEFCE works closely with universities and colleges to help them develop local partnerships through a programme of work on local growth led by our Local Growth Consultant and our Institutional Directorate and other higher education stakeholders. This includes providing data and maps, such as on higher education cold spots, as well as the SME maps published today. The programme helps universities and colleges consider the range of possible local partnerships and sources of support for these, including the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) over €6 billion between 2014 and 2020), the Local Growth Fund and other sources.