The innovation infrastructure described in the Innovation Report 2014: innovation, research and growth recognises the need to facilitate linkages between businesses, universities and research institutions, as well as IP, regulatory and financial bodies in order to support innovation.
However, it does not recognise the contribution that Further Education (FE) institutions could potentially offer through fostering and supporting innovation in SMEs and young entrepreneurs who do not take an academic route through the education system. Failing to do so wastes opportunities to connect with a large segment of the current and future workforce.
The report states that while Higher Education/ Business collaborations are relatively well established, only a small proportion of firms are engaged in innovative activity. It also states that the UK falls short in metrics relating to basic skills and management skills. We need to encourage and support more SMEs to develop and exploit their ideas. FE colleges are often more accessible than universities to SME’s and are able to provide up-skilling alongside training in management techniques that are crucial, in order to maximise the innovation potential of UK industry at the grass roots.
In addition, many leading edge technologies are not being commercialised as quickly as they could be, because universities focus mainly on research output.
Individual researchers are often unaware (uninterested) in commercialising what they do, perhaps because research performance is judged only on the basis of citations and success in obtaining grants from research funding bodies. Development of knowledge, not commercialisation, is seen as the end goal. While Business/Higher Education collaborations are being formed, many exciting new developments are going unheeded and commercial opportunities (that could fund further research) are being lost.
The BIS Innovation Report presents figures that show that only China exceeds the UK in terms of doctoral degrees per 100,000 of population. This would appear to refute any statement that innovation is linked to research capability alone! As the report goes on to say, entrepreneurial and managerial skills are also needed to support commercialisation. These skills are often not well valued in research-focused institutions (particularly scitech departments). Universities are probably not best placed to advise SME’s on business skills at a practical level, as their focus is on research and knowledge creation. FE colleges are likely to be able to do this much more effectively. If the development of innovation skills is limited to students in HE institutions, we are neglecting the education of a huge proportion of the working population.