‘Small providers, big ideas’ – IHE calls for dedicated support for SMEs in HE

‘Small providers, big ideas’ – IHE calls for dedicated support for SMEs in HE


Independent Higher Education (IHE) has today published An SME Manifesto for Higher Education, calling on the next government to unlock the potential of SME HE providers to drive innovation, meet local training needs and boost adult learning opportunities across a range of industries.

Former Universities Minister Jo Johnson, architect of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, has endorsed its recommendations.

Successive governments have supported the role of SMEs in sectors including tech, agriculture, tourism and health. Existing SME plans enlist government, their regulators and sector support agencies to offer smaller organisations the business support, tailored guidance, and access to finance which they need to grow. In the longer term the plans aim to shape the environment in which SMEs operate to ensure it is supportive and that regulations are proportionate to their size.

The SME Manifesto for Higher Education draws on these examples and applies their lessons to the particular position of SMEs in higher education. Our proposals are shaped by SME HE providers themselves, who have told us what support would have a positive impact on their businesses and on the students who choose to learn with them.

SMEs are the backbone of the UK economy and essential for the success of so many industries. For SMEs to thrive in higher education and compete on a truly level playing field, we need to look afresh at a complex system of funding, regulation and support designed for larger universities and rebuild it from the ground up. This manifesto is the first step in doing so.

Alex Proudfoot, IHE Chief Executive, said:

“ SMEs are the secret ingredient in our successful modern economy, providing essential flexibility to almost every sector and responding to localised needs in every region of the UK. In many industries they are the engines of innovation and highly prized for their agility, independence and ability to specialise. It is time for our higher education sector to benefit in the same way.

“ Higher education remains ripe for innovation, and increasingly it is the SME HE providers who are pushing against the boundaries of how we learn and what it means to graduate into a world where the lessons never stop coming.

“ The recent reforms in England were intended to set us on the path to a modern and innovative sector but there are obstacles still to overcome in their implementation, and a little government support would go a long way.

“ The kind of SME plans that exist in other sectors, with just a few regulatory tweaks, would be enough to catalyse the growth of smaller independent providers and the creation of new and distinctive forms of higher education, while delivering us to the door of a framework for lifelong professional learning. We should not let this opportunity slip through our fingers. ”

The Rt Hon Jo Johnson, former Universities Minister (2015-2018), said:

“ British universities are known as giants on the world stage but some of the most exciting higher education today is being offered by small providers with big ideas. As Universities Minister I saw first-hand the energy and entrepreneurial spirit which can be unlocked when government removes the barriers to innovation.

“ IHE have been at the leading edge of reform in recent years and I commend their SME Manifesto for Higher Education for its practical policies and fresh ideas on how best to support a thriving educational ecosystem in the UK. The next government would do well to take note. ”

Lord Bilimoria CBE, Vice President, CBI, and President, UKCISA

“Small universities and colleges are often overlooked and taken for granted in Britain. Like SMEs in other industries they can be at the forefront of creativity and innovation, and leaders in education within their industry or specialism. Perhaps more so than other sectors, where entrepreneurism is celebrated, they can also be held back by negative perceptions including excessive regulation. Government investment in small universities and colleges would go far to challenge this trend, and support growth in education which is more than an investment in higher education, it is an investment to transform Britain and the world for the better. Independent HE’s proposals for an SME Model for Higher Education are an important first step in this regard.”

Roxanne Stockwell, IHE Chair and Principal of Pearson College London, said:

“ The UK has a history of excellence in higher education which is the envy of the world, along with a tradition of restless innovation sustained and renewed by the arrival of new institutions which dare to be different. Just as in business, tech and the creative industries, our higher education sector works best as a complex ecosystem of provision in which new approaches, start-ups and SME providers are encouraged and supported to succeed. ”

Rachel Hewitt, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

“ This manifesto demonstrates SMEs in higher education are already doing many of the things all political parties are calling for higher education providers to deliver, including enabling closer links between HE and FE, offering different types of provision to support a wider range of students to enter higher education and building close links with industry. However, aspects of the current regulatory environment limit what these providers can offer to students. This manifesto sets out clear recommendations of how government could support SMEs in higher education to broaden the opportunities available for all students. ”

Eliza Bonham-Carter, Curator and Head of the Royal Academy Schools, said:

“ As a provider of postgraduate study in fine art to only 50 artist-students The Royal Academy Schools has exemplified the specialist excellence that SMEs represent in higher education in the UK for over 250 years. We would welcome government support to address the challenge set by current regulatory requirements which are designed with much larger institutions in mind. ”

Will Hunter, Founder and Director of the London School of Architecture, said:

“ SMEs form the vast proportion of architectural practices and SME higher education providers are a natural fit. Our small size and focus allows us an innovative approach and a much closer integration with the profession, but it can also place immense barriers to growth.

“ IHE’s SME Manifesto proposes that we get the same support that government offers to SMEs in other sectors. This should rightly start by understanding the positive impact we make to the UK economy, and the challenges we face in a regulated environment which is neither proportionate nor supportive to SMEs. If the next government is serious about expanding student choice and delivering industry-led education it must support SMEs to be part of the regulated HE sector and access all its benefits. ”

Sharona Friedman, Chief Marketing Officer, of UCFB, said:

 UCFB has always sought to expand its offer in the UK and overseas, bringing its unique brand of business and sport education to the world. With the passion of our board, staff and students we have managed to forge our own relationships within the UK and abroad and have achieved huge successes over the past eight years.

The ideas in the SME Manifesto for Higher Education would support our growth and the growth of others who want to follow in our footsteps. This is growth that students and industry stakeholders demand. In order to seize all the opportunities and do it well, SMEs need a little support and a spirit of partnership from government.

The cost and burden of regulation has often thrown up barriers to our growth, but we would relish an opportunity to work alongside IHE within a government partnership framework that helps us and others like us to flourish.


  1. IHE is a UK membership organisation and formal representative body which exists to support, develop and promote independent providers of higher education, professional training and pathways.
  2. IHE’s 53 members include household names such as the Royal Academy and Le Cordon Bleu, long established independent colleges Spurgeon’s College and City & Guilds of London Art School, industry leading technical institutes Futureworks and Met Film School and global education pathway providers Kaplan and Study Group.
  3. A few facts and figures about SME higher education:
    • 89% of the independent higher education sector are SMEs; 19% of these are Micro and 49% are Small
    • 42% of SME HE providers offer FE, short courses or CPD alongside their Undergraduate provision
    • Students at SME HE providers contribute over £1 billion to the economy through fees and spending
    • £144 is the average cost per student for SME HE providers in England to register with the Office for Students
    • 74% of SME HE providers think the government should extend support for SMEs to higher education
  • On 2nd December 2019