Role of the ‘entrepreneurship university’ in society

Venture creation programmes are still somewhat novel in higher education. Relatively few universities offer real-world entrepreneurial degrees and their implementation is often complicated by a lack of funding and faculty motivation.

Entrepreneurship, however, is vital to a country’s economic and institutional prosperity. Therefore, universities need to do more to spur entrepreneurial activity to meet society’s needs, according to Paul Jones, deputy director of the International Centre for Transformational Entrepreneurship at Coventry University in the United Kingdom.

Jones laid out his university’s approach to entrepreneurship education during a session on how higher education can meet labour market demands at the Association of Commonwealth Universities’ Conference of University Leaders held in Ghana last month.

“The whole premise of [venture creation] degrees is that when students leave their period of study, they will have set up a viable and sustainable business,” he said. “Such programmes have to be very experiential and very different in terms of their construction.”

While entrepreneurial universities specialise in vocational training, they also have to have an underpinning of traditional academic theory, Jones added. They are still academic institutions even though some of their curricula focus on practical education.

What separates a venture creation programme from a traditional entrepreneurial course is that the latter is established to simply spread awareness about entrepreneurship and introduce certain skills that students of all degrees can use while the former sets out to create sustainable entrepreneurial and enterprising activity.

Venture creation programmes are unique in that they require students to run actual businesses during and after the completion of their study.

A model?

It is difficult to determine exactly how many venture creation programmes exist, but researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden estimate that there are 18, mostly in Europe and the United States. Coventry is one of the universities on that list.

Jones used Coventry’s programme as a model for less developed universities to imitate, especially in societies struggling to meet the employment demands of young people.

“Unemployment for graduates is a real issue in the UK as it is for African students,” Jones said. “Could self-employability and entrepreneurship be a viable career choice? In the UK, we saw entrepreneurship education as a potential cure.”

And so did one of Britain’s former prime ministers, David Cameron. During a speech in 2014, Cameron urged small business entrepreneurs to help Britain overcome its economic woes.

“We need to be a country that celebrates enterprise and that celebrates risk taking because that is where the growth, and the jobs, and the future are going to come from,” Cameron said.

Entrepreneurship education and communities

While the entrepreneurship education model can help address certain deficiencies in society, Ranbir Chander Sobti, vice-chancellor of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in India, says universities need to construct programmes that are relevant to their local contexts.

“The future prosperity of our economy strongly hinges on the creation of vibrant indigenous universities,” Sobti said.

To maximise the impact that entrepreneurship programmes have on society, students should adopt entrepreneurial skills, then apply them to fit the needs of the local people, he added.

Sobti called entrepreneurs “solution agents”, but conceded that societies will not benefit from them until the fundamentals of entrepreneurship are fully implemented in higher education curricula.

He urged universities to invest in skill development programmes and incubation centres to give students the creative and logistical space needed to set up viable start-up companies.

Some challenges

Universities face numerous obstacles in establishing venture creation degrees and other entrepreneurship programmes – from a lack of adequately trained faculty to meagre funding and resources, poor institutional infrastructure and marketing constraints.

But one of the most pressing problems is the inability of universities to clearly define exactly what entrepreneurship education is.

“A number of universities have described themselves as entrepreneurial universities,” said Coventry’s Paul Jones. “We have to be careful when we look at this description. Is there entrepreneurial activity occurring in these universities to justify this title? Often there isn’t.”

Romeela Mohee, vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius, says universities can encourage entrepreneurial activity and attract students looking for top-notch training without stretching the definition of what they offer.

The University of Mauritius “doesn’t claim to be an entrepreneurial university”, she said. “However, we have tried to capture a little bit of what would be needed if people would like to form start-ups.”

The University of Mauritius does not offer a full-fledged venture creation programme, but it does encourage students to develop entrepreneurial skills through an initiative with the Francophone Institute for Entrepreneurship, a Mauritius-based organisation that seeks to boost enterprising activity in parts of Africa.

While the institute should not be considered an entrepreneurial university in the purest sense, according to Mohee, it should be recognised for its attempts to integrate entrepreneurial principles into its curriculum.

Not all universities, however, are following this path.

“There are examples where universities in the UK have disengaged with this agenda because [they] realise that entrepreneurship education is hard work,” said Jones. “It requires a lot of commitment from staff and a lot of university resource has to be put into it.”

Jones also said that the recommended class size for these programmes – capped at 20 or 25 students – discourages many university managers from offering degrees with a specialisation in venture creation simply because they don’t like such low numbers.

But this should not deter universities from pursuing the programmes in the first place. The theoretical aspects of a traditional degree coupled with the invaluable experience of real-world venture creation is a combination universities should embrace for the sake of the future of society, Mohee said.

“We have to think out of the box,” she said. “We think we are doing our best, but we have to do more.”