Britain's legion of local small-time entrepreneurs are set to become key players in the re-making of the university system, writes Simon Targett.
Sir Ron Dearing, conducting a government-commissioned review of higher education, wants to bring small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to the discussion table this autumn, effectively giving them equal status with the big multinational corporations.
The major companies - rich and represented by politically-powerful bodies like the Confederation of British Industry - have long been influential in the development of higher education. By contrast, the myriad of SMEs, lacking these advantages, have rarely had been heard in the decision-making rooms of the universities.
Sir Ron is set to change all this. Realising that SMEs will create most of the new jobs in the next millennium, Sir Ron is going to meet local business leaders in a round of regional one-day sessions run by the 81 training and enterprise councils.
He told SME executives at the TEC National Council conference in Birmingham last week that he wants to know their views on the key questions: how many workers do they want educated at university, how many specialists and what kind of research do they need. "We're already spending Pounds 2billion on research. What else do small firms want from it? Do they want anything? Are they willing to pay for it?" There are signs SMEs will take up Sir Ron's invitation. TEC leaders heard evidence that relations between SMEs and the local university are beginning to thaw. Just four years ago, the tenuous links between Bradford University and the local SME-representing TEC were underminded by "mutual suspicion", according to Tony Jowett, Bradford's director of continuing education. This has changed, and Calderdale & Kirless TEC is co-ordinating a Pounds 7 million integrated manufacturing centre, which is significantly funded by local higher education institutions.
But relations between SMEs and universities are fragile. Lindsey Mayor, director of operations at Wakefield TEC, said: "We've written the preface, the foreword and a bit of the first chapter, but we're a long way from the complex plot."