Over the past two decades, online shopping has packed a punch, striking towns and cities across the UK hard, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020.
Domestically, the rising cost of living affecting us all already has had an inevitable knock-on effect for the feasibility and viability of small businesses. Several economic initiatives from the government, including Covid-related packages of support or tax cuts, have attempted to act as a pragmatic shield to the United Kingdom’s 5.5 million-plus small businesses.
While these provided some level of comfort; it is not enough. We must look to the question of what can be done to enable small businesses to flourish, and the increasingly enterprising higher education sector is uniquely placed to make a difference.
The Covid-19 pandemic increased vulnerability and cautiousness amongst small businesses, significantly affecting both their functionality and mobility. More recently, the increasing of direct business costs, including fuel and utilities, is already paralysing several industries, and making managers and leaders question their operations, efficiency and effectiveness. These challenges have led to universities revising and affirming fresh, bold approaches in engaging and supporting small businesses, and desired success.
Universities have increasingly aimed to introduce and embed enterprising activity within their teaching, research, and external engagement for the benefit of emerging small business.
Where once these buzzwords of “enterprise”, “entrepreneurship”, and “entrepreneurialism” were occasionally interchangeable or lead to ambiguity, this is no longer the case. Distinctions are now clear between skills-based enterprise activities such as idea generation and problem solving within industry contexts, and the more venture-focused entrepreneurship processes including start-ups and academic spin-outs, which are facilitated within universities. This has resulted in students and academics being more widely exposed to challenges and scenarios in confronting and dealing with small business realities through enterprise.
Prime examples witnessed from my own institution, the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), highlight several successes. enterprise and entrepreneurship are embedded within modules and programmes within the School of Business and Creative Industries and our remit is to understand the challenges of the local, small business community and confront them. In my role I have adopted an academic team-based approach, and advanced teaching and support addressing entrepreneurialism and its impact on small businesses, supporting wider consultancy and knowledge transfer-based activities.
The relationship between industry and the entrepreneurial university hinges on the development of technical, practical, and enterprising skills, including idea generation and development, market research, and preparing a financially viable business model. This benefits small businesses through training, the encouragement of enterprising behaviour and venture creation, and the opportunity to progress productive partnerships through innovation.
Thinking through the challenge
Universities need to consider how their mission and purpose could impact on small businesses. Interventions, such as coaching and mentoring, must address the viewpoints of small businesses. With this in mind, there are a number of key principles which can drive productive and enterprising action.
Acknowledging colleagues, cultures & curriculums – Which small businesses can your local university engage with now?
Considering existing university and small business partnerships pre-pandemic for example, and analysing the mixed fortunes of these organisations would be both timely and productive towards entrepreneurial action. As universities return to more on campus activity, an internal review of key resources, offerings, and expertise should be undertaken to align with the needs of small business. This includes appreciating the immediate community, working with schools and colleges, and increasing local government engagement with enterprise agencies.
Endorsing national interventions – What capacity does your institution or department have to get involved and contribute with programmes such as these?
Reflecting on the current progress of academic and research teams, and their potential applicability to local issues, can unlock great potential. Exciting initiatives such as the Help to Grow programme, funded by the government and supported by the Small Business Charter is a prime example of practical engagement between government, industry, and education. A 12-week programme, businesses develop relevant and purposeful action plans as they advance their innovative business model.
Pooling and sharing ideas & expertise – What are the challenges, shared by academia and small business, since the pandemic began?
Costs, functionality, and growth are just some of the main challenges experiences by those within universities and small business since 2020. Since 1975, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) have emphasised the importance of the academic or academic research team within industry, and their relevance to business. With the pandemic affecting us all, shared hopes and fears concerning small business productivity and how an updating of organisational goals, consumer engagement strategies, and realising market reach are required.
What small business can do
In their day-to-day operations, among many concerns of small businesses are dealing with rising running costs, retaining key staff, and identifying unique selling points within their respective marketplaces.
Additionally, over the past five years, events such as the withdrawal from the European Union, the pandemic, international conflict, and economic downturns, have all impacted small business development. Presumably, primarily due to the pandemic along with typical factors, between 2020 and 2021 there was a decrease in the overall business population within the UK by 6.5 per cent.
Small businesses, with the assistance of local universities, must assess both their operational capabilities and their key entrepreneurial or innovative activities. These include extending beyond simply balancing internal costs and attaining external resources efficiently, to heightening and effectively implementing digital skills and competences, strategic and entrepreneurial thinking, market engagement in physical business and digital worlds, seeking national or external support, and reflecting on operational and brand development through sustainability-related issues.
The vital relationships that are struck, where universities serve immediate, local communities and engage with small business, is critically important to the prosperity of regions and the overall UK economy. These relationships create educational and industrial legacies, as lessons are learned and brighter economic futures are imagined.
As universities contemplate their industry and entrepreneurial responses, I predict the direction of travel for higher education and small business to be increased engagement with the types of educational interventions and consultancy-based examples discussed here.