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Coronavirus and the entrepreneurial university

05 Aug 2020 | Professor David Kirby In March 2020, Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, claimed, “Universities will be changed for ever by the coronavirus….” Six months later it remains unclear exactly how they will change and what changes will take place. Here Professor David A Kirby examines how universities could become more entrepreneurial as a result of the pandemic.


Increasingly universities are being required to behave more entrepreneurially. In part this is to reduce their dependence on government funding and in part to have them contribute to economic and  social development through the exploitation of the intellectual property stemming from their research. However, there is a third important reason that is often overlooked. If universities are to create entrepreneurial or enterprising graduates, as they are also being required to do, they will not be able to do so, effectively, unless they themselves are entrepreneurial.

So, there are very good reasons for this development but all too frequently it is resisted, not least because it is not fully understood. Traditionally universities have never had to be entrepreneurial and many in academia are concerned that it will “drive out their other more fundamental university qualities, such as intellectual integrity and commitment to learning and understanding” (Williams, 2002, 19). Accordingly, with the exception of the recruitment of international students, there has not been widespread adoption of the concept, despite various measures introduced to expedite its take up.


The growth of international student recruitment is of only relatively recent origin. In the UK, for example, it did not occur until after 1980. Prior to that date the numbers of international students had been relatively small and the student population was recruited from the domestic, national market. In 1980, the state funding of the country’s universities was slashed and universities were required to charge full-cost recovery fees for international students. They now saw an opportunity to redress the reduction in government funding by extending their market catchment and recruiting students from overseas. So “universities began engaging in commercial overseas recruitment and viewed international students as an economic benefit” (Policy Connect 2018,17) with the result that today  they contribute something in the order of £5bn sterling per annum to the UK’s universities and £25bn sterling to the UK economy.

The Covid-19 pandemic could have a similar impact and, as a consequence, universities could become more entrepreneurial. At least in the short-term there is likely to be a reduction in student numbers and fee income, and despite support from government, several universities are likely  to face a shortfall in income. Doubtless some institutions will have to trim their budgets and some may be required to close or merge but many will probably look to diversify their income streams  by being more entrepreneurial. Already this has begun to happen, with the UK university sector, for example, carrying out vital research into finding a vaccine, providing much-needed equipment, facilities and extra staff to frontline NHS services and exploring ways to help the people’s health and wellbeing (Universities UK, 2020).

The same is happening elsewhere and in Egypt, a country not known for its entrepreneurial universities (Kirby and Ibrahim, 2016), Mowafy (2020) has demonstrated how, “with the current COVID-19 pandemic, several Egyptian universities have responded in an entrepreneurial manner”. However, while such actions may be entrepreneurial, whether commercial or social, it does not  mean that the universities themselves have suddenly been transformed into Entrepreneurial institutions.

To become an entrepreneurial university entrepreneurship needs to be embedded into the university’s mission and vision. It needs to embrace the “Third Mission” and treat Knowledge/Technology Transfer and commercialisation as of equal importance to the two traditional missions of education and research. At the same time the university needs to interact with its environment/local market(s) and build partnerships with the business community, ensuring  that its research and teaching is responsive to local needs. This means that the institution needs  to be flexible and responsive to change in the marketplace which, in turn, requires that it is less bureaucratic than at present. Also, the emphasis, in both teaching and research, needs to be on  innovation - the production of enterprising young graduates who can see opportunities, innovate and bring about change and the generation of research that leads to disruptive innovation and competitive advantage.


Doubtless the pandemic will pose challenges to all three university missions as the research of Kawamorita et. al. (2020) has demonstrated, but it could also provide opportunities for universities to behave and contribute more entrepreneurially. In the UK and other countries such changes have been and are being made, but not uniformly across the sector or even within institutions. If a university is to be classified and accredited as entrepreneurial both the culture and implementation of enterprise has to permeate the whole institution and apply to all of its faculties  and sections, including the administration. (See Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and  Engaged Universities - As O’Kane(2020) has recognised, however,  “The Covid-19 pandemic has not necessarily shown universities what they should do, but it has certainly shown universities what is possible”.


Has your university responded entrepreneurially to COVID-19 and what does it need to do to become an entrepreneurial institution?


Kawamorita, H., Salamzadeh, A., Demiryurek, K., and Ghajarzadeh, M.,(2020), Entrepreneurial Universities in Times of Crisis: Case of COVId-19 Pandemic. Journal of Entrepreneurship,  Business and Economics. 8(1), 77-88.

Kirby, D.A., and Ibrahim, N., (2016), Entrepreneurial Universities in Egypt: Opportunities and  Challenges. In Rizk, N., and Azzazy, H., (Eds), Entrepreneurship + Innovation in Egypt. Cairo: American University Press.

 Mowafy, A., (2020), How ‘entrepreneurial universities’ are tackling the effects of COVID-19 in Egypt. American University in Cairo: Business Forward Digest, April 8 (online)

O’Kane, C., (2020), Universities’ chance to practise what they teach.. Newsroom Opinion iece Accessed at  

Policy Connect (2018) Staying Ahead: Are International Students Going Down Under? London:Policy Connect.

Universities UK (2020) How Universities are helping fight COVID-19. London: Universities UK.

Williams, G., (2002), The Enterprising University: Reform, Excellence and Equity. Buckingham.

The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Professor David A Kirby is an Honorary Professor of Almaty Management University and a Council Member of the Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Engaged Universities. He has held posts in six UK universities and from 2007-2017 was Founding Dean and Vice President of The British University in Egypt. In 2006 he was awarded The Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion.

Developed in partnership with EEUKIOEEISBESFEDI and the QAA, Advance HE's  Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education Framework is a resource to help institutions provide the right activities and experiences so that students can identify what is involved in being enterprising and entrepreneurial, helping them to navigate their future careers.


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