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Identifying and creating the entrepreneurial university

10 Feb 2020 | Professor David Kirby Governments around the world are requiring their universities to develop entrepreneurial graduates and to become, themselves, more entrepreneurial. Professor David Kirby explores the concept of the Entrepreneurial University, what it is and how it can be created.

Increasingly it has been recognised that entrepreneurial education itself will not be effective unless there is a change in the teaching paradigm and the educational institutions themselves become entrepreneurial. Not only do the traditional, passive methods of learning need to be changed but, as Jonathan Ortman (Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation) has observed “universities can only effectively become incubators of entrepreneurship and innovation if they themselves practice entrepreneurship”. Accordingly, the concept of the  entrepreneurial university has emerged in recent years and numerous measures have been taken to encourage universities to change. In the UK, these have included, apart from funding, capacity building programmes ( and recognition schemes such as The Times Higher Education Outstanding Entrepreneurial University of the Year Award. International initiatives, in contrast, have included:-

What is an Entrepreneurial University?

While there is very considerable interest in the entrepreneurial university, there is no agreed definition of it. Numerous definitions exist and numerous examples and case studies of entrepreneurial universities have been produced. In Egypt, a colleague and I undertook research on a sample of universities and presented the respondents with five definitions of the entrepreneurial university, namely an entrepreneurial university:

  • Involves the creation of new business ventures by university professors, technicians or students (Chrisman,, 1995).
  • Seeks to innovate in how it goes to business. It seeks to work out a substantial shift in organisational character (Clark, 1998).
  • Is a natural incubator, providing support structures for teachers and students to initiate new ventures (Etzkowitz, 2003).
  • Sells services in the knowledge industry (Williams, 2003)
  • Has the ability to innovate, recognise and create opportunities, take risks and respond to challenges (Kirby, 2006).

All of them supported the definitions by Chrisman, Etzkowitz, Williams and myself suggesting that an acceptable definition of the entrepreneurial university might be: an entrepreneurial university…has the ability to innovate, recognise and create opportunities, take risks and respond to challenges. It sells its services in the knowledge industry and is a natural incubator that supports its academics, technicians and students to create new ventures.

How are they created?

Traditionally universities have not been the most entrepreneurial of institutions and most academics have seen their roles as teachers and researchers, not as entrepreneurs, believing that being entrepreneurial will drive out their other more fundamental university qualities. In turn, senior managers have been concerned, often, about the possible negative impact on their institution’s research performance, despite the fact that some of the leading research universities in the world are among the most successful entrepreneurially.

Accordingly, creating an entrepreneurial university is not easy, though it is possible to look to theory to determine what needs to be done. First, research suggests that academics are probably more similar to entrepreneurs than might first be expected, which would imply that providing there is a supportive culture, academic opposition need not necessarily be as great as might be anticipated. Second, given our knowledge and understanding of entrepreneurship in general and intrapreneurship in particular, it should be possible for us to create the sort of environments in which enterprise can flourish. For example, cognitive theory would suggest that if academic entrepreneurship is to be encouraged, it is necessary for ‘society’ to have a favourable attitude towards such an objective, and for academics to believe that it is intrinsically rewarding and they have the ability to do it. If these conditions can be created within our universities, therefore, then it should be possible to harness the enterprise that exists within the academic community. Again, intrapreneurship* theory points to the way this might be achieved, stressing the importance of senior management commitment and the need to:

  • identify intrapreneurial talent within the organisation,
  • determine the corporate model,
  • develop an intrapreneurial culture,
  • determine an appropriate reward system and
  • develop an identifiable system for administering and evaluating projects.

In order to effect this, theory would suggest the need to formulate and implement a high-level strategy that demonstrates the university's intent, makes it clear that this form of behaviour is encouraged and rewarded, provides the university's staff with the knowledge and support to start their own business and creates an environment that reduces the risks involved. To be effective, such a strategy needs to be endorsed by the university's governing body, incorporated into the strategy for the university, and, importantly communicated to the staff. However words are not sufficient and senior management need to model the behaviour they wish to promote. This is why the Entrepreneurial Leaders and Heads programmes of the National Council for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE) are so important.

(* Intrapreneurship refers to a system/culture that allows an employee to act like an entrepreneur within a company or other organisation.)


Chrisman, J., Hynes, T., and Fraser, S., (1995), Faculty Entrepreneurship and Economic development: The case of the University of Calgary. Journal of Business Venturing. 10, 267-281.

Clark, B.R., (1998), Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organisational Pathways of Transformation. Oxford: Elsevier Science.

Etzkowitz, H., (2003), Research groups as “quasi firms”; the invention of the entrepreneurial university. Research Policy, 32, 109-121.

Kirby, D.A., (2006), Creating Entrepreneurial universities in the UK: applying entrepreneurial theory to practice. Journal of Technology Transfer. 31, 599-603.

Williams, G., (2003), The Enterprising University: Reform, Excellence and Equity. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Questions. How would you define and create an entrepreneurial university and what needs to be done in yours?

Professor David A. Kirby is a former Entrepreneurship academic and a founding member of The British University in Egypt. He is a council member of the IACEEU and a trained HEInnovate workshop facilitator. In 2006 he was a recipient of 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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