Business schools and SMEs

A valuable partnership that can significantly boost SME performance

+ Great resource: Business schools are a great resource for learning, collaboration, and research.
+ Close links with SMEs Encouraging greater utilisation of their skills and academic strengths.
+ Powerful catalyst for growth: Collaboration can unlock significant growth opportunities.
Graphic of woman teaching students in business school

Business Schools - an underused resource?

A report by the Chartered Association of Business Schools Task Force, - Business Schools and the Public Good, June 2021 - set up to explore how business schools could improve the way that their academic excellence filters through to the broader business community, highlighted a number of areas that could be improved.

UK business schools are an undoubted success where, following a period of significant growth, many have been able to establish international reputations and have attracted large numbers of high-fee-paying students.

However, the report concludes that, too often, business schools have been incentivised to focus on academic research that boosts the status and ranking of the school, and therefore increases the attractiveness to students, rather than on creating incentives that reward their direct impact on business. It also recognises that business schools are not structured to provide ready and easy dissemination of research into the broader business community in a way that makes the research accessible and relevant.

As part of a broader objective to ensure that business schools play a more effective role in helping small businesses innovate and take on best practice that unlocks growth and higher productivity, a Small Business Charter was set up to facilitate the closer cooperation of businesses and business schools.


Find out how business schools are working to provide support to small businesses locally

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The government can play its part but what other organisations are there that can facilitate the transfer of knowledge and expertise to help busy owners plan for and navigate a path towards to growth?

Some typical services offered by business schools and universities

Business Consultancy

Business Consultancy

Leverage independent, academic expertise to boost your business processes, strategy and solve real-world problems.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships

Improve your competitiveness, productivity and performance via a collaboration between you, a graduate and the business school. They are usually part-funded.
Research projects

Research projects

Collaborate and under take a research project to develop new processes, techniques and solutions to your particular business requirement.
Research facilities

Research facilities

Business schools can provide specialist research capabilities that can provide a world-class environment to development new ideas and products.

Staff development

Staff development

Ensuring your staff are up to date with the latest management techniques and skills to enable effective business change and growth.
Business-focused students

Business-focused students

If you need extra staff without long-term commitment, students can inject fresh ideas and skills to help kick start a projecy or new process.

Benefits of university-business collaboration

1. Commercialisation

When new patents or products flow from business and university collaboration, both parties benefit.

2. Research

The R&D of a company can be significantly enhanced by collaboration with university researchers.

3. Reputation

If new research gets published jointly, or new processes or products are developed, the reputation of both parties is boosted.

4. Competitiveness

This can be improved with the development of new products or production processes.

5. Skills

Through learning new techniques or processes, your employees can benefit from higher skills and career enhancement.

6. Innovation

A joint project can create a new dynamic within your team, helping boost the long-term pace of development and innovation.

7. Invention

Joint research and development may lead to ground-breaking technologies, or even whole new industries, with economy-wide impact.

8. Shared resources

One partner may have cutting-edge facilities; the other may have deep expertise. Combining them leads to mutually beneficial outcomes.

Economic contribution of universities in England *

£95 billion

Contribution to GDP:
Since 2014, the contribution to GDP has grown by around a quarter


Jobs supported:
English universities provide 360,000 jobs directly, and support a further 455,000 in the wider economy

Over 130

Number of English universities:
There are around 2 million students with about 400,000 international students

University-Business Collaboration Facts and Figures 2022



Total income from business interactions:
The 2020/21 figure has fallen from the peak of £954,985 in 2018/19.


Total income from SME interactions:
The 2021 figure has fallen from the peak of £250,591 in 2019.


Average income from SME interactions:
The 2021 figure has actually increased from £2,711 in 2019.


% SMEs signing collaboration agreements:
The 2021 figure has fallen from the peak of 37.6% in 2017.


People-based interactions:
Nearly half of companies reported that they had people-based interactions.


Commercialisation interactions:
The number of companies reporting interactions based on commercialisation


% University R&D funded by business:
The figure has ranged between 4-5% for more than a decade, peaking at 7.6% in 1999.


University patents granted:
2021 is the peak of recent years, climbing from 953 in 2015. 


University spinout companies:
2021 is the peak of recent years, climbing from 995 in 2015. 
Source: National Centre for Universities and Business: University-Business Collaboration Facts and Figures 2022, 27 October 2022

Boosting growth requires support for business leaders

help to grow management man looking at camera

A practical curriculum

  • Eight facilitated online two-hour sessions
  • Four practical, face-to-face case study workshops
  • 10 hours of one-to-one support from a mentor with experience of running a business, providing you with personalised support to develop your own business growth plan
  • Peer networking, including peer group calls that give you the opportunity to share experiences with a small group of other small business leaders
  • Access to the Alumni Programme featuring events with inspirational speakers, business clinics and networking events

Help to Grow: Management

Announced at the budget in March 2021, the Help to Grow programme is designed to help equip SME business leaders with the skills and insights to help them innovate and grow. It has been designed in partnership with leading business schools (participating schools that have been accredited by the Small Business Charter), leading figures from industry and a number of experienced entrepreneurs.

In order to qualify for this programme, your business must:

  • be a SME based in the UK
  • be from any sector and employ between 5-249 people
  • have been operating for at least a year
  • not be a charity
and the applicant must be:

  • a senior decision maker, such as CEO, Finance director or Operations Director (only one person per business allowed)
  • commit to completing all the sessions.

The course:

According to analysis from the ONS, small changes to the management practices of SMEs can lead to a 10% increase in productivity. Further analysis from the CBI suggests that boosting their productivity to match that of German SMEs could add up to £100bn to the economy.

A new programme has been set up by the government to give 30,000 SMEs access to world-class business expertise on a wide range of business topics. It will:

  • offer a 12-week executive training programme to small business leaders
  • be delivered by the UK's leading business schools 
  • taken alongside full-time work it will combine a practical curriculum with 1:1 mentoring, peer-learning and mix face-to-face and online learning
  • be 90% funded by the government (cost to SME will be £750)
The course is designed to give an in-depth high quality curriculum that will develop and build your skills in leadership, innovation, digital adoption, employee engagement, marketing, responsible business, and financial management.

All this will allow you to develop a business growth plan that will unlock the full potential of your business.

The course will allow you to:

Growth Action Plan

develop a plan to help you lead your business amd help it grow

Leadership and management skills

develop them to enhance employee engagement and wellbeing

Productivity and growth

recognise what drives it and what it means for your business

Responsible business practices

ensure that you can create an inclusive and green workplace

Innovate your business model

incorporate new and digital technologies

Domestic and export markets

identify key markets and develop strategies to target and position

Operational efficiency

develop strategies to enhance efficiency, saving time and money

Small Business Charter

In recognising the increasing struggle between academic rigour and producing effective business managers, the Chartered Association of Business Schools, the voice of the UK’s business and management education sector, and the BIS (now BEIS) set up the Small Business Charter (SBC) as an award, to give recognition to business schools that play an effective role in supporting small businesses, local economies and student entrepreneurship.

Currently, there are 65 business schools that hold the award. Whilst not identikit in what they offer, they provide services that include start-up space, co-working space, specialised longer-term educational programmes, events and workshops.

In order to achieve the award, business schools are put through a tough assessment to measure their effectiveness in promoting business support, entrepreneurship education and engagement with their local economy.

Additionally, it provides a network for business schools to be able to promote the services, strengths and skills of award holders to a wider SME audience.

business school lecturer writing on whiteboard

SMEs are varied

In assessing SMEs it is sometimes forgotten that they are not really in any sense a homogeneous group at all. In fact, with 5 1/2 million of them, spanning those who employ from zero to 250 employees and have turnovers that range from perhaps a few thousand pounds up to £50 million, it can be hard to draw any common conclusions at all. This can cause problems, not least in trying to direct policy to help unlock the sector’s potential.

In all cases though, one of the key influences of improved growth and productivity is the level of management leadership and skills. When setting up a small business, the challenges involved in getting a start-up launched and brought to life are quite different from those required to drive growth and further innovation and manage all the processes around scaling up. The skills found within the firm's leadership, and acquired through additional employees, are an important determinant of future success.

A study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that, in developed economies like the UK, at least 55% of the expected improvement in labour productivity growth will come from simply adopting the best management and technological practice from other firms. The remaining 45% came from actual innovation in business processes or technology.

External factors can also be important in contributing to the success of a business. Some, such as ready and easy access to finance are constraints. Others, such as successfully starting to export and accessing SME-friendly public procurement schemes, are opportunities for growth.

Some business owners are incredibly ambitious and want to spur growth as fast as possible. Their metrics of success would include revenue growth and market share. Several studies conclude that having entrepreneurs and business owners who have high-growth ambitions is more important than the immediate business environment.

Other owners might prefer to focus on more societal benefits, such as providing employment opportunities for young people or having a reputation for honesty and expertise.

Wanting to innovate and grow, however, is not the same thing as being able to. Some business owners can be incredibly protective of their company and can fail to see the need for the changes and improvements that can make significant improvements to both revenue growth and profitability.

Graphic of key skills required for a start-up

Key skills for a start-up

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Pressures of running a small business

Running a small business can be a totally immersive experience which provides little scope for standing back and taking a considered view of the business. If the business is undergoing a daily battle to simply survive, it can be incredibly difficult to look at ways of generating growth.

The UK has been very successful at developing a more entrepreneurial culture, with a focus on the ecosystem required to help businesses get across the start line. Where the support system has worked less well is in helping new and existing businesses plan for, and execute, a programme of change that accelerates the growth of businesses. In short, the UK has been relatively poor at turning small businesses into medium ones; medium businesses in to large ones.

To create the growth in wealth, productivity and employment; to continue to encourage and foster innovation that will allow the UK to compete internationally, it is clear that a more effective way of supporting growth in companies needs to be found.

"Innovation is a key long-term driver of competitiveness and productivity. Universities are central to ‘innovation ecosystems’ – the networks of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import, modify and diffuse new technologies."

The City Growth Commission

Business schools as a growth catalyst?

If many business owners lack the confidence, expertise and skills to plan how to grow their business, they need an effective resource which can help them unlock their potential. Networks of other business owners can be effective; sharing best practice, learning new processes and techniques; collaborating and sharing the cost for R&D can all be an important influence. 

Business schools, as repositories of excellence and deep learning, are a very good resource for catalysing business growth and providing a variety of business support. They can do this through the application of research to real-world business problems; through teaching on a variety of courses designed to equip entrepreneurs and business people with knowledge and skills and through consultancy, where they provide expertise to solve a particular problem or series of problems, whether funded by the business or through government-funded programmes.

What is clear to us is that collaboration between businesses and universities will only become more important as they each tread transformative paths.

There is no doubt that digital technologies, big data and global challenges, including climate change and health emergencies, are changing business models with far-reaching consequences for business research and innovation activities, as well as their talent requirements.

Helping build bridges between business and business schools

Business schools are a fantastic repository of expertise in starting and growing a business. If we can help promote this and widen SME take up, we will have played our part in helping solve one of the key problems associated with too-low productivity in the UK

As part of our mission to help SMEs find new customers and suppliers and easy access to services that will help them grow and be more productive, we believe there is tremendous scope to help and encourage a further broadening and deepening of the relationship between business schools (not just the SBC award holders) and a wide range of smaller businesses.

Covid has caused a huge dislocation to many businesses and those who adapt and innovate will be best placed to succeed in the new business environment. Business schools have the ability to provide a ready source of local advice. Tapping in to this expertise and experience is a fantastic way for SMEs to move from business survival to powering ahead with growth.

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