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Anchor institutions and small business development and learning: A role for university business schools?

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Fiona WhitehurstORCiD, Leigh Sear


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This paper engages with the latest iteration of the debate around the role(s) of ‘anchor institutions’ – in particular universities (Goddard, et al., 2014) – and associated debates concerned with universities’ relationship to local and regional development (Glasson, 2003) in England. More specifically, it represents an empirically-grounded contribution to recent calls (see Smallbone and Kitching, 2015) for research into the activities of anchor institutions in relation to the development of small firms’ management and leadership skills. The research underpinning this paper is being carried out at a time when English universities are increasingly expected to expand their role as place-based institutional actors despite constraints on higher education funding and in the context of severe cuts to economic development spending at all levels of government. This at a time and in a wider socio-economic climate where entrepreneurship is being held up as an attractive economic condition for working-age populations and self-employment is a necessity for some. Within this setting, the university business school is perceived as a potentially significant actor and it is the activities of one such actor – the business school of a university in the north of England – that represents the empirical focus of this research. A key feature of the contemporary business school’s expanding role is that of engaging more effectively with, and providing support to, the local business community. The support system for small businesses in England has been subject to constant change over recent decades, most recently represented by the emergence of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), which hold responsibility for the newly-created enterprise zones, in the wake of the outgoing regional development agencies (RDAs). Against the backdrop of a shifting business support landscape, the research literature identifies small firms in particular as experiencing a number of barriers to benefitting from support initiatives, including those aimed at management/leadership development. The most well-rehearsed of such barriers are small firms’ limited awareness of available support, a perception of the unaffordable costs (both in terms of time and finances) of accessing support, and doubts about the quality of that support (Curran et al., 1996; O’Dwyer and Ryan, 2000; Kitching and Blackburn, 2002; Smallbone and Kitching, 2015). Further, it has been argued that micro firms (those employing fewer than ten people) are among the most difficult-to-reach small firms and that they should be the focus of research efforts given their numerical dominance in the SME community (Smallbone and Kitching, 2015). It is micro businesses that make up the majority of the firms that are participating in our research project. Moreover, Smallbone and Kitching (2015) propose that the key question for researchers in this space is the extent to which anchor institutions may be an appropriate means of leading the government drive to upgrade management and leadership skills in small businesses – our investigation represents a direct response to this research gap. The empirical data-gathering context for this paper relates to a project funded by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). The funding is part of the UK Futures Programme which was set up by UKCES in April 2014 and aims to trial innovative ideas with industry to test ‘what works’ in addressing workforce development issues restraining business performance. Our project, one of eight to be funded, is piloting a novel set of activities that are primarily designed to enhance the small business owner-managers’ management/leadership skills. It brings together micro businesses and senior managers from large private sector employers within the region and through a series of workshop-based activities facilitated by the university business school, owner-managers are matched with one or more senior manager(s) from a large established regional business to form a supportive, action-oriented relationship conducive to reflective learning. The project seeks to support the development of approximately 50 small businesses over a 9 month period. In addition to observational data-gathering during this workshop activity, the research team is conducting semi-structured interviews with project participants in an effort to better understand the affordances and constraints of the university business school, in its role as an anchor institution, as it engages in a facilitative capacity to develop members of its regional small business community. This will entail exploring whether and how the anchor institution manages to leverage its ‘sticky capital’ (Howard, 2014) connected with its spatial rootedness and concomitant local/regional networks in an effort to provide a setting that brings together normally disparate members of the business community. As such, the research is concerned to extend existing debates around universities as anchor institutions which tend to conceptualise them as having direct and indirect impacts on their local economies via, inter alia, their own and their students’ purchasing activities, their potential to attract and retain talent, and academic spin-off activity (see Goddard et al., 2014). Further, this research centres on a ‘traditional’ university, which research has shown, tends to be less engaged with its region’s development than newer higher education institutions (Boucher et al., 2003). Hence, our paper will set out emerging findings in regard to these themes from the ongoing data-gathering activities. Given the project’s novel juxtaposition of members of the micro business community with those from large, established businesses, the paper will also explore the extent and nature of learning between these actors which traditionally are perceived as inhabiting distinct spheres of action. References Boucher, G., Conway, C., Van der Meer, E. (2003) Tiers of engagement by universities in their region’s development, Regional Studies, 37: 887–889. Curran, J., Blackburn, R., Kitching, J. and North, J. (1996) Establishing Small Firms’ Training Practices, Needs, Difficulties and Use of Industry Training Organisations, DfEE Research Studies RS17. Glasson, J. (2003) The widening local and regional development impacts of the modern universities - a tale of two cities (and north-south perspectives), Local Economy, 18: 21–37. Goddard, J., Coombes, M., Kempton, L. and Vallance, P. (2014) Universities as anchor institutions in cities in a turbulent funding environment: vulnerable institutions and vulnerable places in England, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 7, 307-325. Howard, T. (2014) How Communities Can Make the Most of Their Anchor Institutions., 10/03/16. Kitching, J. and Blackburn, R. (2002) The Nature of Training and Motivation to Train in Small Firms, Department for Education and Skills, Research Report 330, online at: O'Dwyer, M. and Ryan, E. (2000) Management development issues for owner/managers of micro enterprises, Journal of European Industrial Training, 24, 6: 345‐53. Smallbone, D. and Kitching, J. (2015) Might anchor institutions solve the small firm management development puzzle? In: 38th Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE) Annual Conference: Internationalisation, Innovation and Leadership; 11-12 Nov 2015, Glasgow, U.K.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Richter P, Whitehurst F, Sear L

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: 5th Engage HEI Conference

Year of Conference: 2016

Online publication date: 09/05/2016

Acceptance date: 02/04/2016