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How can universities better support local and regional businesses?

​Without doubt, the strength of our higher education sector underpins the health of the UK economy. British universities are held in high esteem worldwide and, according to the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, no less than five of our institutions make it into the Top 25.

However, good as they are at attracting international students and carrying out world class research, British universities seem to scratch their heads when it comes to supporting businesses who are on their doorstep, and particularly SMEs. Why is this? This was a question posed at a recent Universities UK meeting on the government's industrial strategy green paper, hosted by Newcastle University. This brought together representatives from the five North East Universities (Newcastle, Northumbria, Durham, Sunderland and Teesside), regional businesses and key stakeholders, such as the Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Academic Health Science Network and my own organisation, RTC North.

Universities can appear complex, and even impenetrable to SMEs – SMEs do not have the time, or the resources to navigate their way through.  Formal initiatives, such as Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, have gone some way to bridge the gap between universities and business. However, there is a richness of untapped potential resources which universities can offer business. This includes not just people and knowhow (academic staff, PhDs, masters students and undergraduates), but also specialist equipment which businesses can use to develop, test and scale new products and processes, as well as managed workspaces (offices, laboratories and incubator space).

How can SMEs source the right expertise at the university most appropriate to them?  Most of our regional universities have business development staff who maintain regular dialogue with the region's biggest businesses.  But SMEs do not have time to work with multiple SME engagement managers across different universities.  So, here's an idea: why don't the five universities in the North East club together to hire a single SME engagement team who are able to signpost businesses to the most appropriate source of support?

I suspect universities also underestimate just how much they have to offer local businesses in the form of training and consultancy support. Initiatives such as Northumbria University's project to support North East SMEs to improve performance through graduate internships and Teesside University's Digital City innovation initiative to place graduate interns in local SMEs are good examples to build on.  Universities can provide help not only through high level technical skills, but through helping businesses to up-skill and re-skill their workforce, softer skills and, in particular, management and leadership development. Could universities do more to understand how SMEs work and to mould their training and consultancy offerings around the time and budget constraints of a small and growing businesses? 

Universities must position themselves to attract the best students and the best researchers, not just on a national level, but also internationally. However, I would argue that universities also have an important role to play in supporting their regional economies. To what extent, I wonder, do the five universities in this region align their research activities and teaching programmes with the very specific challenges facing the North East economy?  I also believe passionately that our universities have a central role to play in helping to address some of the critical skills challenges facing the North East economy. The North East is seen as a great place to be a student but it isn't yet seen as a great place to build the early years of a career. This has to change.

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