By Marcus Leach
Almost three-quarters of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK have worked with a university or higher education institution (HEI) in the past year, according to research published today by the Institute of Directors and Universities UK.
The research, part of Universities Week 2011, reveals wide ranging engagement driving innovation and employment as well as boosting local economies.
Key to those engagements are the areas of professional development, research and working with current and recent students. Research was obviously a key area for some SMEs with 12% participating in collaborative research; 9% contracting a HEI to conduct research; and 7% using specialist equipment and facilities.
In addition, SMEs clearly seemed to be benefitting from the 3.7million days of Continuing Professional Development courses delivered by universities annually, with 37% attending lectures, conferences and public events; 12% working with universities to personally undertake professional development; and 7% using them to provide bespoke professional development for their employees.
Close working with universities on the employment pool also emerged as a trend with 27% of those surveyed employing recent graduates or post-graduates; 18% offering work experience opportunities or sandwich placements; 14% offering formal internships for undergraduates, graduates or post-graduates; and 10% even working on live business projects as part of a course.
“This research uncovers an ever-growing network of universities and small businesses delivering genuine innovation on the frontline of British business," Miles Templeman, Director General of the Institute of Directors, said.
"We hear all the time of exceptional ways that smaller companies are working closely with universities to mutual benefit. It’s good for our members, good for universities and good for the economy. We want to see these relationships grow even stronger.”
The research also shows positive experiences for businesses working with universities, with 58% viewing the impact of their links as positive or very positive; 37% finding the impact significant or very significant in terms of delivering their business objectives; and over 30% viewing their businesses’ current links with universities as strong or very strong.
Almost half (48%) felt that universities have changed their culture over the past 10 years to be more commercial and business-facing. Yet despite the positive results in many areas, 55% of those working with HEIs said that universities should make it easier for businesses to find out who to speak to in universities or other higher education institutions, and 47% that they should promote their services more effectively to businesses.
“With nearly half of businesses reporting that universities are becoming more business savvy, it is clear that both parties can see the wealth of opportunities that are available and are adapting to reflect that," Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK said.
“We know that universities are often the lifeblood of their local economy and are UK-wide worth over £59 billion annually. But as higher education enters a new era, it is crucial that universities work even harder to cement their position as vital parts of their local, as well as national economy. Working with SMEs will be key to this.”
Although the majority of those SMEs who engaged with HEIs only engaged with one (33%), 30% engaged with three or more, with 9% engaging with five or more institutions. Some 36% of respondents also had links with universities across the UK, as opposed to just in their local area or region.
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