18th November 2019

Building the skills associated with employability, enterprise and entrepreneurship amongst the student cohort is an increasing concern for universities. The pressures of performance measures such as NSS, TEF and KEF, and the impact of these on funding and league table positions is encouraging senior leaders to place an increasing emphasis on this area of activity. We could go so far as to suggest that enterprise is joining teaching and research as one of the strategic pillars to accomplish their mission. Investment in this area is apparent in the breadth of activities associated with student enterprise offered by institutions and the increasing centrality of this within university positioning, but what role does and should a business school play in this?

‘How can business schools encourage enterprise and entrepreneurship across the whole university student population?’ was the question for a recent Small Business Charter project. The team, comprising of academics, student enterprise experts and SME owners, were tasked with exploring best practice and current activity through a survey and case studies. Now that the project is complete, what can we learn from the study and how can it help inform conversations across the University?

For a start the certainty of the question needs unsettling. Business Schools play a key role in the University enterprise landscape, but they are not the sole player and not necessarily the lead in the institution for enterprise and entrepreneurship student development. Business schools, careers, students’ union enterprise/innovation centres and other departments and schools claim a legitimate stake in this arena. The observation of student enterprise and entrepreneurship as a contested space occurred very early in the project before a survey had been administered or an interview consent form signed. Locating the ‘right’ person in the business school sometimes proved difficult. Roles don’t always betray activities or responsibilities. Frequently the project team were encouraged to approach individuals on the edges or ‘outside’ of the business school instead of, or to complement, a Business School representative.

This should be viewed as an opportunity for business schools. It is a reflection of how student enterprise and entrepreneurship necessarily needs to work across an institution and how the approach and organisation will vary within each institution. Factors such as the geographic location of the institution, its mission, disciplinary arrangements, student recruitment catchment area, sources of funding, and the legacy of its placement and business engagement activity all shape how student enterprise and entrepreneurship is approached.

Within the study there is an acknowledgement and acceptance amongst participants that this is a complex area of endeavour, with multiple stakeholders involved, each bringing different skills, knowledge and values. The role played by the business school in this landscape is accordingly highly variable. Formal and informal structures have been developed so that student enterprise is visible in decision making forums, and approached in a largely collaborative manner allowing good practice to be shared across disciplines. Due to the various factors which inform how enterprise is developed within an institution, there is no one-size meets all solution. Instead, a nuanced approach which respects the local context, institutional strengths and structures often leads to an appreciation of the distinct needs and abilities of students and staff.

Given the pressures of student experience (NSS), graduate outcomes (TEF) and start-ups (KEF) there appears to be an increasing recognition within HEIs that they have a responsibility to build the skills base required for employment after graduation,  meaning student enterprise is becoming a core aspect of the overall student offer. The means of incorporating it within the ‘offer’ is frequently through reference to an enterprise ‘journey’ or ‘pathway’, running parallel to (or in tandem with) the academic student journey from registration to graduation. Although the imagery and wording draw from this idea, all of those involved in the report were keen to emphasise that very few students engage with enterprise in this way. Alternative similes were used, including that of a jigsaw, to reference how the disparate elements come together but not always in a linear or structured way. Many students pick and choose the elements of the enterprise support they feel they need from the offer available. These elements are fairly standard across the institutions, workshops, accelerators, incubators and mentors etc.

The extent to which these elements are incorporated within an overall coherent package however varies by institution. In the study several institutions conceptualise student enterprise and entrepreneurship as part of a wider enterprise education and practice ecosystem. This ecosystem extends beyond the institution to incorporate and involve other key stakeholders in the region or further afield. At the core of the ecosystem is a vision or mission to enable knowledge exchange to take place. This is often underpinned by the vision of the institution, whether that is creating useful practical knowledge or serving the local business and civic community. The activities in this ecosystem draw heavily from the research undertaken within the institution, research which is often inter-disciplinary in nature, but critically it is research which is deemed valuable by those involved in the process. Student enterprise and entrepreneurship operates within this ecosystem, but it does not drive it. Instead the various elements of knowledge exchange build connections which facilitate a range of activities which include placements, start-up support, mentoring, venture funding and in-curriculum or extra-curriculum modules.

These ecosystems do not appear ready formed, they have evolved, often over decades. In many cases the enterprise offer has evolved from the incorporation of placement years in undergraduate degrees, with many early adopters of placement years having the external connections and experience of working in a boundary spanning capacity. Whilst a small number of institutions have benefited from sizeable donations from alumni or local entrepreneurs, this alone does not facilitate a knowledge exchange ecosystem. When the funding runs out, initiatives are scaled back or withdrawn. The ability to sustain activity once external funding has expired is a challenge many institutions are forced to tackle. With many institutions dependent on ERDF monies to deliver student enterprise and entrepreneurship, the current political situation concerning Brexit makes future planning and the development and maintenance of these ecosystems even more testing.

For business schools involvement within these ecosystems may offer a means to efficiently balance the demands of research, teaching and enterprise, and doing so in a way which satisfies the demands of performance metrics and accrediting bodies. The question for those working in business schools is the extent to which their business school is central to and engaged with institutional entrepreneurship and enterprise agendas.

By Matthew Higgins, Associate Professor in Marketing and Consumption, University of Leicester School of Business, and member of the Small Business Charter Management Board.