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Prepare for birth of business

I remember one of the episodes in Yes, Minister, entitled "Open Government", when Sir Humphrey advised Bernard to "deal with the difficult bit" in the title.

In Northern Ireland, the review of further education was entitled FE Means Business, a useful double entendre. The difficult bit is now ensuring that the aspirations of the review are met by implementing a strategy that includes having an economically- focused curriculum to make FE the "engine of economic development".

It will be interesting to watch how the experiment with such a focused agenda pans out for FE in the province. The more traditional role of enhancing social cohesion and providing opportunities for lifelong learning will not disappear, so there may be a tension in balancing these responsibilities.

There are some aspects of that review in Northern Ireland that could be useful for the future role of FE in Scotland, given the uncertainty about direct support to small businesses through the transfer of Business Gateway to local authorities and the changing shape of Scottish Enterprise. Colleges work in partnership with Scottish Enterprise and authorities, but there is scope for working more closely to deliver each other's aims.

If we address a business start-up agenda, then FE:

- has a substantial pool of skilled individuals in training, which would be ideal as a target market for business start-ups;

- has some state-of-the-art facilities in most disciplines, which could be used for proto- typing in appropriate cases;

- has existing experience of engagement with employers and therefore up-to-date labour market intelligence and research.

What if colleges had, as a specific remit:

- to educate potential entrepreneurs;

- to help develop potential business ideas;

- to help entrepreneurs make a more informed choice when considering the idea of enterprise creation and suitability in running their businesses.

By providing a parallel track pre-incubation, we could add value to the training opportunities. Pre-incubation fills a gap initiating the start-up process by linking potential knowledge economy entrepreneurs with academia, which has been proved to stimulate and accelerate successful ventures. And potential entrepreneurs would be able to leverage technological resources specific to their needs to develop their business concept.

A wide range of different outcomes could be envisaged, from hard economic outputs to important impacts such as:

- creating an environment where enterprise will flourish where the rate of new business start-ups is growing steadily (including people from under-represented groups);

- generating a secure and supportive space for potential entrepreneurs, including advisory services and the infrastructure required to successfully develop a local area's emergent technology business base;

- increasing pre-incubatees' confidence;

- optimising networking among pre-incubatees;

- transferring knowledge and skills from education to industry and vice-versa;

- helping pre-incubatees acquire key business skills;

- increasing informal mentoring and exchange of advice.

In other countries where pre-incubation is an embedded aspect of third-level provision, there is notable success, especially in Finland, the US and South Korea. Perhaps others can teach us a thing or two - even elsewhere in the UK.

Jim Crooks is principal of Elmwood College in Cupar, Fife.

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