Aston University is a non-affiliated city centre based university which identifies three main beneficiaries in its mission – students, business and the professions. It has a strong enterprise and entrepreneurial vision which seeks to bridge the world of intellectual discovery with practical needs of business. It enjoys a good reputation for collaboration with a wide range of civic and business groups in the local region. The university is comprised of five schools, including a medical school, engineering and applied science, life and health sciences, languages and social sciences, and Aston Business School. It was one of the first major supporters of sandwich programmes for undergraduate programmes. The University recruited approximately 14,000 students in 2016/17, of which roughly 80% are undergraduate. In the same year, the business school recruited over 3,000 students.
For Aston University, enterprise and entrepreneurship are seen to operate most effectively when viewed in unison and the goal is to support graduate outcomes and start-up development. The university’s enterprise and entrepreneurship activity is branded to appeal to both students and the wider community, with each strand of activity enjoying a discrete programme brand. Accordingly, student-focused enterprise and entrepreneurship sits within a wider regionally focused SME ecosystem. This ecosystem consists of a research centre, growth support for local SMEs through mentoring, networking, blended programmes and competitions. This ecosystem has developed within the business school. The structured nature of the ecosystem means that there is little overlap or conflict between the various programmes.
The student and graduate start-up support team at the university work in collaboration with three other local universities. Aston University leads this collaboration. The team comprises of three FTE (Full-Time Equivalent) and it is funded through the ERDF with matching funding provided by the contributor institutions. The initial funding was for three years and a recent bid for a further three years has been successful. The unit offers entrepreneurial support in the form of boot camps, mentoring, incubator/office space and grant provision. This support is available to all students and recent graduates. The team is focused on extra-curricular delivery of enterprise and start-up activity and since 2012 they have seen a significant increase in the support available to students. The unit does support some specialist in-curriculum teaching for individual academics across the institution, but due to the size of the team, this in-curriculum support is necessarily ‘ad-hoc’.
The manager of the team previously reported to the Deputy Vice Chancellor/Provost, however the reporting line has now moved to the Associate Dean for Enterprise in the Business School. The relationship with the Provost remains strong and the team receive support due to the Provost’s academic interest in the area of enterprise and entrepreneurship.
The team is not physically located within the business school; however it is located in a nearby (non-university) building. Within the same building and a neighbouring building are a number of corporate sponsored start up incubator spaces, with which the team enjoys strong ties. Each of these spaces is focused on a particular area of activity (e.g. finance, power and health). The university also receives funding from Santander Universities to promote start up activity and this has helped establish a six week mini-accelerator designed in part to feed into the incubator. The mini-accelerator is run in partnership with a commercial student enterprise platform provider, itself an edtech startup.
The team aims to encourage students to ‘explore’, and ‘experiment’ with enterprise ideas and ‘launch’ new businesses. Each of these forms of activity is ‘branded’ and could be construed to be a journey, however there is an acknowledgement that this is very rarely a linear journey, with students and graduates taking up the opportunities when they require them. The formal entry point for students (exploration) is facilitated through a series of themed events which help students to see how they can develop a range of different types of business in various sectors (e.g. food, tech, freelance, fashion and social enterprise). The events feature recent start-ups and local entrepreneurs. The team uses practitioner trainers rather than academics; however, academics are involved in other parts of the institution’s enterprise programme offer.
Due to the offer being extra-curriculum, the students are self-selecting, however the team endeavours to promote their service through academics and a myriad of other communication channels. The team works closely with enterprise champions amongst academic staff, and each School has an Associate Dean for Enterprise who leads on the in-curriculum offer and refer extra-curricular support to the team. Across the university is an enterprise educators group which meets regularly and this includes Associate Deans and colleagues with a strong interest in embedding enterprise and entrepreneurship in the curriculum. It has recently created a definition for enterprise skills within Aston University, describing five competences that Aston University students will have.
It is noted that the language used for student enterprise and entrepreneurship is particularly important and the preferred terminology varies by school. The size and influence of the business school in the university, with the issues these raise, does mean that the team needs to adjust the language to suit the discipline. Although the business school and engineering are comfortable with the terms ‘embedding entrepreneurship’ or ‘business start-ups’, other schools prefer ‘enterprise’ and ‘enterprise skills development’. This requires the team to develop a repertoire of terms to refer to enterprise and start-up activity. The danger is that this can often make the activity being promoted a little opaque (e.g. ideas generation). Terms such as social enterprise are being used, though not necessarily understood by the students, and business start-ups through social activism has seen a noticeable rise in interest and provides a means through which entrepreneurial activity and inter-disciplinary engagement can be promoted. From September 2019, Aston University is launching a programme which adopts a Finish Team Academy curriculum design approach, and this is anticipated to further bolster the enterprise and entrepreneurial focus of the institution.
In addition to the enterprise and entrepreneurship team, the university also has a centralised placement team and a careers service. The unit enjoys a strong relationship with the placement team due to the opportunity for students to take an enterprise focused placement, which can see the student use the team’s incubator space. The Students’ Union has employability within their remit, however they tend to refer students to the team for enterprise and start-up support.
Evaluation of enterprise and entrepreneurship is a work in progress. There is an acknowledgement that the push for measuring impact is important but capturing this is ‘easier said than done’. Incorporating anecdotal evidence is particularly difficult due to the extent of the influence of the team on an organisation’s success is difficult to establish, quantify and evidence. Case studies are used extensively, and the team also has an ‘entrepreneur of the month’ to showcase recent success stories. The team reports through HEBCIS data but seeks to use qualitative data to capture their work. They also utilise independent evaluation to monitor performance.