This blog was contributed for Sophie Cloutterbuck, Director of London Engagement, London Metropolitan University.
As the majority of restrictions in the UK are now lifted, the push for a pre-pandemic, semi-normal festive break ensues. A period where we can see friends and family, shop on the high street, and gather in large numbers to celebrate is almost within reach, but over recent weeks it has become abundantly clear that small businesses, social enterprises and charities face major, long-lasting challenges as they navigate the complex ‘new-normal’ created by Covid-19.
Statistics collected by Simply Business state that 81% of SMEs reported that they have not received enough government support throughout the lockdown period, with 24% saying there should have greater communication and transparency about the impact on small businesses and the self-employed. As the economy started to feel the effects of the pandemic, businesses and the public were faced with stark choices, budgets were slashed and we all felt the squeeze.
Throughout this period, charities played a key role in supporting local communities, adapting the ways in which they helped people practically overnight. And yet, as we emerge from the lockdown periods with the majority of the nation still feeling the financial effect of the pandemic, the question remains of who will support these charities as we enter this next phase of pandemic recovery and priorities shift once more.
One avenue of consistency in the last 18 months has been universities. The relationships built by universities, working closely with local businesses, community initiatives and the third sector have enabled civic partnerships all over the UK. Through forming partnerships with universities, there’s hope for SMEs, social enterprises and charities to bounce back and create a more stable future as the world tries to balance itself out. Universities have several key attributes at their disposal that can help support: young, entrepreneurial students looking to bolster their career prospects through placement schemes before heading into the world of work; innovative, on-site technology and research; and specialised academics who can provide and professional development for staff.
Recent data published by the Institute of Student Employers suggests current graduates face mounting difficulty in finding job opportunities following the pandemic, and are looking to new routes to bolster their experience and employability – routes such as university placement schemes.
Alex Glasner, the Managing Partner and Founder at Coniston Peak, is one small business owner who has made use of a placement scheme. He said, ‘Our intern, Mia – who worked with us in her final term of university – was a real asset to the firm. She got up to speed quickly and was a key member of the Coniston Peak team. As a small business, this scheme was exceptionally helpful for us, allowing us the chance to carry out our work and give Mia a great experience at the same time.’
These experiences are not isolated and not reserved for business organisations – through developing fruitful relationships with universities, community initiatives can also benefit. These groups include Better Safer Communities, founded by Sarrah Haid who said: ‘We have placed over 200 students with over 60 enterprises and these wonderful students have offered their technical skills to produce videos on law, mental health, culture, dance and humanitarian aid. They have also developed websites, blogs, newsletters, flyers, posters, and research both on UK and International platforms.’
At London Met we’ve responded to the needs of our local economies and civic organisations through offering two new ‘clinics’; the first focused on Charities and Social Enterprise, and the second on Small Business. Both clinics offer free services in a number of different areas, such as data analytics and digital media, fundraising, financial management, web design, under the supervision of qualified academics.
In times of uncertainty, universities must strive to offer consistency and support to the communities in which they are based. By proactively fostering student engagement with local people and initiatives, universities can offer a huge amount to organisations in their local communities, enhancing their business or social offerings and providing them with extra resources so they can meet their goals.
And of course, it’s empowering for the students too, who can explore different skills and roles and find they thrive in them, and leave their studies driven by values they’ve cultivated through their work, building their CVs along the way. These civic schemes can also help to build more interconnected communities. Working and volunteering opportunities with local organisations can be a powerful motivating force for students to stay in their university town when they graduate, ensuring the area can benefit from an engaged, enthusiastic population; and can take students out of their university ‘bubbles’ to enable them to experience the different ways people live and work, perhaps exposing them to careers they had not previously considered.