The 3.7 million micro-, small- and medium-sized businesses in the UK are of central importance to the future of the nation’s economy, contributing over 40% of the UK’s gross national product.

In the face of increasing competition from overseas, maintaining high skill levels – in all UK businesses – is crucial to the UK’s future economic prosperity and the ability of industry to innovate. Training designed to meet employer need is therefore essential to ensuring businesses, both large and small, can continue to thrive.

Foundation degrees are designed in partnership with employers and are therefore ideally placed to provide companies of all sizes and in all sectors with the skills that meet their specific business needs. They are vocationally focused qualifications that can be delivered full-time, part-time and in the workplace, and employees taking them are able to apply their theoretical learning in practice with immediate and positive impact on business productivity.

Because employers contribute to their design and delivery, they have the opportunity to shape a flexible qualification that fits the precise needs of their business. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ solution, and therefore small businesses can reap the same rewards as large corporations.

When designing a foundation degree a small business has the opportunity to put together a qualification that not only meets its specific skills needs but also its more practical requirements.

Small employers are already engaging with foundation degrees – some are taking students on work placements, others send employees on a foundation degree course to develop specific skills for their business, while others collaborate in the design and delivery of courses directly aligned to their business needs.

Martin Walsh is a partner at Martin Walsh Associates, a small architectural and civil engineering consultancy in West Yorkshire, who believes that staff training is a vital part of running a successful business. Sending an employee on a foundation degree course has been ideal.

Walsh successfully used a foundation degree to meet a specific skills need in his business. When his wife and business partner retired from the company, he opted to send Philippa Ward, who had joined his business as a junior receptionist in 1992, on a business, finance and law foundation degree, so that she could take over his wife’s role in accounts.

For Walsh, a key benefit was that lectures were scheduled with employees in mind, so he did not need to worry about taking on cover whist an employee was studying – a concern which is frequently cited by employers who are looking to training to address skills gaps.

Walsh’s example is a clear endorsement of how foundation degrees can work to the benefit of an employer who sends an employee on a course. Should a small business have more specific requirements, however, it could opt to get involved with the design of a course.

Capex Health, a medium-sized business working in the health sector, designed a course in health informatics in conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University, Leeds Medical School and the Dearne Valley College.

As they had a clear idea of the tasks employees would be undertaking, they were able to influence programme content quickly and extensively – in only three months. Capex now enrols all of its employees on the course.