Universities must move from teaching to transforming

Across the world we hear a similar narrative: youth unemployment is on the rise, economies are shrinking, job losses continue and inequality is worsening. Where once a university degree alone was enough to secure the future, now universities have been increasingly relied upon to move beyond the theoretical to enable youth to access real opportunities and engage meaningfully in their economies.

To do this in an ever-changing economic climate, universities are having to find new ways to provide hope and advancement to their students.

Entrepreneurship, and by extension entrepreneurship education, have long been acknowledged as one solution to youth economic marginalisation. Universities therefore have a key role to play in developing entrepreneurial thinking and building entrepreneurial mindsets among students and within their communities.

Higher education institutions have traditionally taught the ‘technical’ in terms of entrepreneurship education; the challenge is now to find a way to ‘teach’ entrepreneurship that positively transforms the individuals involved, emphasising the personal and the possible.

The Youth Economic Participation Initiative or YEPI is a four-year initiative of the Talloires Network – an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education.

It included eight university-based initiatives around the world – including the Raymond Ackerman Academy at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business – and demonstrated how disrupting university pedagogies around youth entrepreneurship has resulted in positive outcomes.

Learnings and insights from the YEPI network displayed some clear trends in what needs to change if higher education training institutions want to genuinely empower more young people.

From personal development to community engagement

The YEPI partner sites identified several critical success factors for universities to support and enable youth entrepreneurship education, including personal development, community engagement, understanding the political and cultural context, entrepreneurship coursework, disruptive pedagogies, mentorship and incubation.

The person-centred approach is key for youth development. Personal development support is essential to developing young aspiring entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial mindsets. It takes the form of compulsory individual sessions with a personal development facilitator who is a qualified social worker and workshops on issues ranging from ‘Vision and Mission’ (discovering your purpose) to well-being and stress management.

Those taking part are also encouraged to include personal goals in their growth plans and YEPI provides a host of workshops or interventions to support these goals, such as a workshop called step on stress using hip hop as the medium of expression and de-stressing.

This support is essential to developing young aspiring entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial mindsets. University-based interventions need to place a stronger emphasis on the individual in parallel with a focus on business skills development.

The model to ‘grow the person, then the business’ exposes participants to a broad range of experiences that cover all aspects of entrepreneurial, business and personal development and this integration increases confidence and capabilities.

This approach also enhances innovation, resilience and provides youth with a sense of meaning and belonging. Universities should empower youth to see beyond limitations and challenges, to see opportunities and to develop optimism, creativity, confidence, resourcefulness and perseverance.

YEPI partners have changed the narrative, encouraging students, staff and faculty to gain skills that add value to the theoretical knowledge gained through the formal education system. In this regard, universities have a key role to play in developing pedagogies that support student and community engagement with a focus on developing collaborative entrepreneurial activities and projects that respond to local political and cultural contexts.

Engaging and responding to local political and cultural environments allow higher education institutions and students to be part of the wider social, private and governmental ecosystem and to foster entrepreneurship and innovation as a strategy for economic and social development.

Learning approaches that include incubation, mentorship, personal development, leadership training and funding are critical to supporting the next stages of a young entrepreneur’s journey. Opportunities to access resources, expand networks and to build their social capital are also critical for youth and universities should serve as a ‘launch-pad’ for students and support them to better navigate accessing resources, networks and opportunities.

Providing entrepreneurship teaching and learning approaches also allows students to benefit from being around like-minded youth and to leverage the psycho-social support that comes from being in such a group.

What developed across the partner sites is the importance of building a network around entrepreneurial thinkers – comprising peers, funders, educators, mentors and local support organisations – that can provide a powerful source of support and connection; designed in response to local political and social conditions.

A different form of education

Formalising and integrating entrepreneurship coursework and pedagogy across the university and faculties equips students with entrepreneurship skills and encourages them to explore opportunities outside of the traditional approach to developing a career.

The role of the university in entrepreneurial education is therefore no longer to ‘teach’ didactically, but to provide the means that allow students to develop their entrepreneurial competencies so that they can take a lead role in developing themselves and their career path and exploring various possibilities that may include starting a new business, acting entrepreneurially within a company (intrapreneurship), academic institution (academic entrepreneurship) or community (social entrepreneurship).

Evidence from YEPI also indicates that the success of university-based entrepreneurship training and employability preparation is also determined by the nature of the teams working on the design and delivery of such programmes. These teams need to embody the entrepreneurial mindset themselves.

It takes passion, energy, compassion, commitment, risk taking, determination, flexibility and optimism to create and deliver programmes that foster those same characteristics in the aspiring participant entrepreneurs.

Initiatives like the Raymond Ackerman Academy in South Africa and others in the YEPI programme have shown that entrepreneurship education up-skills and develops young people to a point where they can either start and sustain a business or find a suitable job so that they are able to support themselves and potentially create jobs for others.

This is not a one-off intervention. In order to support and create universities for the future, youth entrepreneurship education within universities must move from teaching to transforming.

Elli Yiannakaris is director of the University of Cape Town’s Raymond Ackerman Academy in South Africa and a programme manager for the Youth Economic Participation Initiative or YEPI . The Pivot Global Education report on the YEPI programme will be available in the coming months. Yiannakaris spoke at the recent Talloires Network conference in Mexico.