Experiential enterprise: can-do students need hands-on teaching

Sector failing to keep pace with changing labour market, scholar warns. Chris Parr reports

October 4, 2012

Universities have failed to react to changes in the labour market that render some traditional business teaching methods defunct, according to an expert in entrepreneurship.

That is the view of Colin Mason, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde, who said that a more hands-on approach to teaching entrepreneurship was required to prepare students for "the new world of work", which is increasingly reliant on the self-employed and agency staff.

"Many universities have not cottoned on to the fact that the labour market is changing, and changing very rapidly. Blue-chip companies are not picking up as many graduate students as they used to," he said.

"Currently, entrepreneurship is taught from far too academic a point of view. A lot of what is masquerading as entrepreneurship [education] is actually just teaching about what it is. It is often taught from a managerial [perspective] and is too focused on what big companies do."

Professor Mason argued that entrepreneurship teaching had to be experiential. Students needed to be able to apply what they were taught in the lecture hall through practice, make mistakes and learn from them.

"It's very important given the current level of graduate unemployment," he said. "We are seeing traditional jobs being replaced by agency jobs, self-employment and freelancing. All of this means entrepreneurial skills are increasingly important.

"It is a new world of work, and universities need to be able to equip people with the skills to survive."

To this end, first-year business students at Strathclyde have the chance to set up their own business over two semesters, working in teams to undertake an entrepreneurial activity that will turn a profit.

Learning by doing

"It's a bit like The Apprentice, although I don't really like that analogy," Professor Mason said. "A lot of soft skills can only be learned by actually experiencing business, and they get to do that. They get to go out, identify a market and sell."

As part of Strathclyde's "Value Challenge", the students invest up to £20 of their own money per group, and choose a charity to benefit from any profit made. Very few make a loss, and a total of £7,000 has been donated to good causes as a result of student activities over the past two years.

Ventures have included a university smartphone application, a "girls' night in" guide and an event to showcase new bands.

The Quality Assurance Agency recently published a report recommending that universities should do more to help students learn entrepreneurial skills before they enter the job market.

In its report, Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education: Guidance for UK Higher Education Providers, published on 21 September, the QAA says that current provision in the UK is fragmented.

It recommends that universities make students aware of the opportunities for enterprise that are available beyond the taught learning environment, including enterprise societies and community-based projects.

Laura Bellingham, development officer at the QAA, said: "Today's graduates need to be able to think on their feet and develop a 'can-do' confidence, with creative questioning...and a willingness to take risks.

"Graduates will require skills in enterprise in order to compete in a changing job market or to create self-employment opportunities."


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