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Demystifying Entrepreneurship Education

10 Jan 2020 | Professor David Kirby In recent years Entrepreneurship Education has become a global phenomenon, yet it often remains misunderstood. David Kirby (holder of The Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion) responds to Professor Nick Williams’ recent blog 'Exploring the Challenges of Entrepreneurship Education' which introduced Advance HE's report, ‘Engaging students in entrepreneurship education: Thoughts on the present context and future challenges’.

In his thought-provoking piece, Nick Williams raises a number of issues with which I would agree, particularly that the “supply and demand of enterprise education needs better examination”, that the “long-term impacts are not generally being measured” and that more needs to be done. However, I would suggest, with all due respect, that his piece displays much of the misunderstanding that surrounds the topic. Let us look at four issues, namely:

What it is?

As Nick says, entrepreneurship is a broad church, it takes many forms and is not what Ulla Hytti reportedly calls ‘McEducation’. Some courses I have experienced are simply Business Studies programmes with a ‘trendy’ title, others are start-up programmes of the type Nick describes, while others deal more with the behaviour and mindset of the entrepreneur. In some cases the objective is to teach students about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, while in others the intention is to create entrepreneurs. Initially, particularly in the USA, the intention was to teach (business studies) students how to launch a new venture, but more recently, and particularly in Europe, it is about equipping students with the knowledge and skills to think and behave like an entrepreneur – the ability to see opportunities, to find creative solutions to problems, to harness the resources to bring them to fruition, to bring about change/improvement, to evaluate critically and take calculated risk, to build and lead teams, to communicate clearly and persuasively, etc. In fact, precisely the sort of skills employers require of their graduates.

Who it is for?

Nick suggests that “Entrepreneurship is not for everybody, and similarly neither is entrepreneurship education”. I would certainly agree with the first part of this statement and, indeed, see my role as an Entrepreneurship Educator as being as much about deterring some from starting a new venture as it is about helping others to do so. Apart from the fact that we do not need every graduate to become self-employed, not everyone is suited to it and some ideas are simply not viable commercially. However, I do believe that entrepreneurship education should be for everyone. In its initial 1980s conception in the UK, the Government’s ‘Enterprise in Higher Education’ initiative was not intended to produce ‘Thatcherite Entrepreneurs’ but to encourage curriculum change and the way students are taught and learn. We do not need graduates who can revise for and pass exams then promptly forget what they have ‘learned’. Rather we need, even more than we did previously, graduates who can apply their learning and innovate, whether they work for themselves or for others. This is what Enterprise Education is really about.

How it is done?

To achieve this requires a change in the methods of teaching and learning – a move away from:

  • the lecturer as disseminator of knowledge to the educator as a facilitator of learning
  • note-taking and passive learning to questioning and action/experiential learning
  • focusing solely on the development of left brain thinking skills to engaging the right brain
  • assessment based on rote memorisation and the unseen time-limited examination to assessments based on the analysis and solution of real-life problems
  • individual learning to learning in groups or teams.

This sort of learning is considerably more difficult to manage but is more beneficial and rewarding I would contend. It encourages the students to be less dependent and risk averse and more creative and proactive. As one Egyptian student observed recently, “This entrepreneurship course opened my eyes to a different aspect of life and helped me to explore my own capabilities…”.

Importantly, it also helps, I believe, to produce a fairer system of education whereby young people who are not passive learners or left-brain thinkers can participate, instead of dropping out and being regarded as failures.

Having said this, I have to agree with Nick that “entrepreneurship is an academic subject in its own right” and that “valuable theoretical lessons can be delivered to students.” Personally, I have attempted to do this through my research and teaching, and especially my book on the topic (“Entrepreneurship”. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill, 2003). Indeed, most of my entrepreneurship education colleagues do so also.

The need for evaluation

I would not disagree either that there is a need to evaluate the long-term impact but that is true of education generally. As Nick recognises, “measuring the impacts of any form of education is problematic” but in Entrepreneurship Education it is believed to be easy – you simply measure the number of start-ups launched by the programme’s graduates. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Apart from courses having different learning objectives as pointed out above, factors other than education come into play. As an example, in one of my early extra-curricular new venture programmes a recently graduated archaeologist had a brilliant low-cost, low-risk business idea that enabled him to use his archaeological expertise and networks. Unfortunately his parents refused to allow him to set up the business as they believed it to be too risky. He ended up as a long distance lorry driver. Nobody suggested this was a failure of the education system, but it would have been perceived as a failure of entrepreneurship education. Perhaps we changed his mind-set, however, and some 35 years on his attitude towards his children is different from that of his parents.

With this I hope I have clarified some of the misperceptions and touched on some important issues surrounding Entrepreneurship Education. Like Nick, I would hope, also, that Entrepreneurship Education will: “better situate itself within academia, so that it is not simply seen as the part of the university that delivers start-up modules”.  But how do we do that?

Professor David A. Kirby, BA., Ph,d, FHEA, FIBC, FRSA., has worked in six UK universities and until 2017 was Vice President of the British University in Egypt. In 2006 he received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Pomotion for his pioneering research, teaching, training and consultancy in the field.   

Advance HE’s collaborative project Embedding Enterprise in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Curriculum is a shared project involving Advance HE, SFEDI, the UK Government-recognised Sector Skills Organisation for enterprise and business support, and higher education providers across the sector. The deadline to join the project is 20 January 2020.

Advance HE has developed the Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education Framework in partnership with EEUKIOEEISBESFEDI and the QAA, alongside a range of other collated resources and guidance to help institutions provide effective 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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