Far from being removed from the cut and thrust of the commercial world, universities are increasingly becoming hubs for economic activity and catalysts for growth, writes Rob James.
Whether it’s a small business looking for the boost that will give it a competitive edge, or a large employer keen to ensure the skills of its staff are up to speed, it could be a university which provides the answer.
What universities possess is not only an abundance of expertise and knowledge, but access to funding streams which are purposely ring-fenced to support businesses and foster a strong long-term relationship with higher education.
Since the University of Derby’s Invest to Grow scheme was launched in 2014, backed by the European Regional Development Fund and UK Regional Growth Fund, it has provided financial support in the form of grants and loans worth more than £23m for more than 200 companies across the region.
It requires companies to create jobs and sustain those roles for between three and five years, depending on the size of the organisation.
So far, 1,400 jobs have been created as a result of Invest to Grow funding, and recipient companies have been able to access £80m of additional finance thanks to the leverage it has given them.
Knowledge Transfer Partnerships have provided an alternative route to growth for companies, especially if solutions to product or service development cannot be found inhouse, by finding graduates with the skills they need, supported by funding from government.
Dr Amanda Baxendale, Head of Research and Innovation Services at the University of Derby, said: “By recruiting the graduate associates who will develop solutions for businesses, we also help to embed the knowledge within the company, enabling it to continue to benefit well beyond the lifetime of a project.”
Finding and retaining highly skilled graduate talent continues to be something that universities are working hard with businesses to achieve.
Launched in late 2018 and backed by the European Social Fund, Driven involves the University of Derby as part of a consortium set up to help companies in the D2N2 Local Economic Partnership find, hire and retain graduates with the skills they need.
And then there are incubation units for start-up companies, including some set up by Derby graduates, in Chesterfield and Banks Mill in Derby, which are more than just spaces to work in. In fact, they provide access to all the University has to offer.
Developing the workforce
Another area in which universities are supporting business is in the area of workforce or continuing professional development.
Whether that is bringing employees’ digital abilities up to a level which will enable them to embrace new technology or automated processes, or ensuring that those in professions such as nursing are learning the skills which will ensure they remain registered to practice, universities are best placed to provide the facilities and knowledge.
At the other end of the career ladder, degree-level apprenticeships are helping to bring higher education and business closer together, according to the University’s Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor for External Affairs Julie Stone.
“We see significant growth over the next three years, as businesses will utilise apprenticeships as a way of bringing new talent into the business or developing existing workforces with new skills, particularly around digital capabilities,” she comments.
“Universities understand that apprenticeships must meet the needs of employers in terms of how the programmes are in sync with work-based projects, how they can achieve greater productivity, can be open to existing, as well as new staff, and can also start at different times of the year.
“Just as importantly, though, it’s about working collaboratively to find a way not only of meeting commercial and educational aims, but also promoting social mobility for students who would not think of accessing higher education without the support of a wage and the absence of debt.”
While at Derby we are aligning ourselves to the regional economic agenda, we have a global vision too. Our international links in China and Japan have been inextricably linked to the needs of businesses in the city and the region, promoting it as a place not just to study, but to live, work and invest.
Finally, it’s vital that business has easy and direct access to the services the University can offer. Arguably, the single most important development of the past 12 months in terms of the relationship the University has with the business community has been integrating those services into a single point of contact, or gateway.
This will enable businesses to be signposted quickly to the service that will help them achieve their goals for growth.