Multiplicity: The Varied Roles of Universities Supporting Small Businesses

Guest blog by: David Pickernell: Visiting Professor, International Centre for Transformational Entrepreneurship, Coventry University

2016 has heralded a period of significant uncertainty for the UK economy, and this is likely to continue for several years. It is precisely during such times, however, that innovation, enterprise and entrepreneurship become even more important, as new products, services, processes and business models are required to meet market challenges.

Small businesses are critically important to the development of these as a way of generating growth in the economy. Small businesses generally, both new and established, are also vital to providing employment, generating growth and developing new export markets. More broadly, enterprising and entrepreneurial behaviours are increasing vital for large and small organisations, in private, public and third sector settings.

It is therefore heartening to see examples of this in a number of activities colleagues and I have been undertaking over the last few months. Crucially these have explicitly linked a variety of university-small business and enterprise developments both narrowly and more widely defined.

For example, recently judging a Small Business of the Year category for Business Excellence Awards highlighted a diverse range of businesses in terms of the sectors represented in the shortlist but consistency in terms of the importance placed on:-

  1. Customer Service
  2. Employee Development
  3. Sourcing local suppliers, hiring local employees and a desire to keep their business in the area.

Growth is also key for these businesses and whilst there are challenges and difficulties, such as the uncertainty of Brexit outcomes, all were positive about the future, with plans for expansion in most cases. Many of the shortlisted businesses have or are also engaged with their local university in some way, from undertaking research with them, to taking placement students, to hiring their graduates. This highlights that these growing small businesses view the university as a valuable resource, indicating the potential for universities to play a key role in helping to develop successful small businesses more widely.

Another area in which many universities have been attempting to do this is via enterprise education. There has been a significant expansion of entrepreneurship education curriculum within the UK in the last decade. However, there remains ongoing debate regarding its value and impact in terms of achieving viable business start-up that contribute significantly in terms of employability and economic contribution.

In the UK, the existing evidence base is typically short term in focus, often considering immediate attitudinal impact upon students of an entrepreneurship education intervention. Some early results from an EEUK funded research project looking at entrepreneurship course alumni from Coventry University and the University of South Wales therefore proved very interesting. They provide more longitudinal evidence regarding the benefits from undertaking a programme of entrepreneurship education on a variety of career trajectories, from alumni who have often been involved in multiple sectors of the economy since their entrepreneurship course concluded.

Entrepreneurship education can most obviously be linked to beneficial outcomes for self-employment. Many of the topics taught in enterprise education courses are also, however, found to be beneficial to entrepreneurial activity in larger businesses, general activity in other types of organisations, entrepreneurship support activities, and importantly, general enterprising behaviour.

Most interestingly bricolage / resourcefulness / effectuation (making do with existing or free resources and putting them to new uses) was found to be important across all of these. This identifies a key skill of particular relevance in today’s resource constrained times, and may indicate an activity that should be taught more widely.

What these examples illustrate is that the university sector has great potential across a range of activities, to assist in the development of successful small businesses, but also to encourage enterprising mind-sets in graduates that can benefit both them and the many types of organisations they may work for in the future.

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