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Exploring the challenges of entrepreneurship education

04 Dec 2019 | Professor Nick William Professor Nick Williams, University of Leeds, author of Advance HE’s new report, ‘Engaging students in entrepreneurship education: Thoughts on the present context and future challenges’ introduces the report, discussing the growth in this area and how measures of impact need to improve.

Enterprise and entrepreneurship education in universities has grown rapidly. As a subject it has moved on from narrow notions of business start-up and growth, to encompass a wide range of pedagogical activity. Yet only only 5% of graduates start their own business and as such the supply and demand of enterprise education needs to be examined.

As the QAA guidance states, progress has been made in improving the evidence base related to the impact of entrepreneurship education on jobs and the economy, although it is clear that problems of measurement and impact remain.

Course specific evaluations tend to measure immediate outputs and short term outcomes. Long-term impacts are not generally being measured. While there has been a growth in academic literature which seeks to measure impacts, more research with robust data is required. The link between entrepreneurship education and business start-up, for example, is still not properly established.

Of course, measuring the impacts of any form of education is problematic. But given the claims that entrepreneurship education has on student employability it is incumbent on those supporting its provision to measure impact. At present, robust studies of impact are largely absent. Often impact is measured in terms of numbers of students engaging in courses, rather than the outcome of those courses. Sometimes impact is measured by the number of start-up businesses launched by graduates, although the influence of the entrepreneurship education received by the students is uncertain.

More needs to be done to objectively measure the impact of entrepreneurship education. This needs to be done by academics and others who are committed to self-criticality; who are seeking to improve on what they deliver. There have been increasing moves towards greater criticality in entrepreneurship research in general, and this needs to be more pervasive within entrepreneurship education too. To do so, research on impacts should not simply be carried out by those involved in its delivery. Otherwise, self-fulfilling positives will be the outcome. Instead, researchers can engage with other experts in education research outside of entrepreneurship studies to truly test the value of what is being delivered.

In conjunction with consideration of impacts, more needs to be done to examine what is being offered through entrepreneurship education. Students often call for ‘practical’ elements within courses and cite them as highlights of their courses (for example, pop-up stalls, consultancy projects, engagement with external speakers). Yet an overemphasis on the practical element has led to much standardised and uniform provision. Courses are typically run as venture creation programmes and represent practically-focused courses run in a similar way across all universities. Students are taught how to write a business plan, going through numerous steps from developing the idea, through to market research, marketing, finances and leading to an exit plan. While business plans are still very popular, there has been some diversification of approaches, for example, business model generation or lean start-up models, which are supported by pitching exercises and competitions.

In a recent book on 'Revitalising Entrepreneurship Education', Ulla Hytti argues that uniformity of provision has led to ‘McEducation’, with one-size-fits-all approaches being offered campus-wide. The over-reliance on standardised content means there is little diversity in what is being offered, and little reflexivity and criticality.

It is important to remember that entrepreneurship is an academic subject in its own right. It is not simply a practical topic, a mechanism for potentially increasing the employability of students. Rather, it is a rich and varied subject. By recognising this it moves the focus on from, for example, start-ups. Entrepreneurship is a broad church and as such it is important to note that not all entrepreneurship education should be practically focused. Valuable theoretical lessons can be delivered to students, including the role of the entrepreneur in the economy, critical perspectives on entrepreneurship and ethics.

Entrepreneurship education needs to better situate itself within academia, so that it is not simply seen as the part of the university that delivers start-up modules. Research on entrepreneurship is much richer and has a much more valuable role to play.

Going forward, the supply and demand of enterprise education needs better examination. More reflection on the style and delivery of courses and modules is needed, as well as understanding of who is benefitting from such education and who is not. Entrepreneurship is not for everybody, and similarly neither is entrepreneurship education. Better examining the impacts of this education is required if provision is to move forward.

Nick Williams is Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Leeds. His research focuses on entrepreneurship and economic development, with particular interests in transition and post-conflict economies. He has also designed, developed and launched a number of entrepreneurship courses and modules, and been involved in numerous enterprise education projects including large EU grants.

Read the report: Engaging students in entrepreneurship education: Thoughts on the present context and future challenges

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 December 2019.

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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