Further education colleges as engines of innovation? A rethink

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As we focus efforts to increase the UK’s innovation activity, what is the role of further education colleges (FECs) in increasing business innovation?

How can further education play a role in business innovation?

The role of FECs has historically been as education providers, although their engagement with employers also sees them well placed to support business innovation. Recognising FECs as part of the innovation ecosystem presents new opportunities to scale innovation support across the UK and ensure all places could increase innovation activity.

In the UK Innovation Strategy (GOV.UK) the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) emphasises the need to support adoption and diffusion of innovation. As place-based anchor institutions, FECs already play an important role in supporting local growth, and are well placed to increase the capacity and capability of local businesses and support innovation clusters.

Exploring the opportunity

Innovate UK commissioned the Innovation Caucus in partnership with:

  • Gatsby Foundation
  • Department for Education
  • BEIS.

It explores the broader role of FECs as part of the innovation ecosystem.

The ‘rethinking the role of FECs in innovation’ report (Innovation Caucus) was published this month. It explores the ways in which FECs are developing their offer to support businesses to innovate alongside their established role as education providers. However, if the potential of FECs is to be realised there is a need to:

  • understand how they relate to existing support
  • ensure that they have the capacity to support more businesses.

What have we learned?

The study found that some FECs had already engaged in supporting business innovation and had already embedded themselves as part of their local innovation ecosystems. The extent and ways in which FECs support business innovation are understandably varied, although the activities can be grouped under four broad headings:

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  1. Workforce development
  2. Infrastructure
  3. Research and development
  4. Collaboration actions.

However, it is not expected that all FECs should have an all-encompassing offer. The report presents a logic model that captures the range of activities that FECs deliver to support business innovation, and how these relate to different outcomes associated with delivering the Innovation Strategy.

Making it happen

In undertaking the study, we expected that some FECs would, understandably, not perceive a role for themselves in promoting business innovation. Instead they focused on their role in developing skills needed by employers.

However, the report identifies how FECs are and can be a catalyst to business innovation.  Thereby becoming a more prominent player in the innovation ecosystem. However, there are two main challenges facing FECs, they are:

  • the ability to understand business needs
  • having the capacity necessary to deliver business support activities.

There is a need to change how businesses perceive FECs and understand how they can support businesses to innovate.

Maximising the value of partnership

The strength of partnerships in maximising the role of further education (FE) providers in innovation has underpinned the development of this study, and the action that can be taken in response to the report.

Colleges demonstrate capacity and willingness to support employers to innovate through links with:

There is the potential to develop the components of local innovation ecosystems to maximise the impact of partnerships for the benefit of innovative businesses.

Prominent role in innovation

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, has outlined that:

Colleges could have a much more prominent role in innovation, particularly working with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and this report helps to make that case. If levelling up is to mean anything, it has to be in part about local economic growth, with SMEs improving their productivity through innovation. Colleges should be central to that, and with the right investment they can do so much more.

We are pleased to see that colleges’ role in this area of work has been acknowledged in the report and agree that there is a need to better understand the innovation needs of local and regional businesses in order to support growth.

It is imperative now that key government departments and other national stakeholders work together to move this forward. The recent introduction of local skills improvement plans and the Strategic Development Fund, are ideal vehicles to develop and strengthen college capacity.

Next steps

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Innovate UK will continue to work with partners to advance the effectiveness of local innovation ecosystems, ensuring the capacity and capability is nurtured to meet the needs of innovative businesses.

We will pursue opportunities to learn and test our thinking. This will ensure we are able to make a meaningful contribution to maximising the adoption and diffusion of innovation to impact economic growth.

In the immediate term, we will explore the relationship between FECs in England and business innovation through the emerging College Business Centres. College Business Centres have the potential to significantly contribute to the ambition of the Innovation Strategy. Through understanding the benefits of this approach there is the opportunity ensure effective collaboration with businesses.

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