Let students build tech products, UK sector told

Graduate talent spotter says UK’s ‘theoretical’ courses should be more like those in continental Europe

July 27, 2015
Members of the Rhoban project's team check functions of a humanoid robot at the LaBRI workshop in Talence, southwestern France, July 7, 2014. The humanoid robot, one of four, which is developed by researchers and students from the University of Bordeaux,
Source: Reuters
Hands on: should students focus on emerging technology entrepreneurship?

UK university courses in computer science and engineering should be modelled on those at specialist institutions in other parts of Europe in order to produce graduates that are entrepreneurial and commercially savvy.

That is the view of Zoe Jervier, head of talent at Entrepreneur First, an organisation that runs a funded six-month programme for graduates who want to launch their own start-ups in emerging technologies.

She praised technology-focused institutions in continental Europe that give students flexibility to launch their own businesses while at university, adding that UK courses are often too “theoretical” to allow students to become entrepreneurs.

She cited ETH Zürich – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich – as an institution that universities in the UK could learn from.

ETH Zürich “has initiatives such as an entrepreneurship club, which is backed by the computer science department and the university as whole. It lets their PhD students take a year off to explore entrepreneurship, and they really encourage getting commercial experience,” she said.

“Most of the professors that teach at ETH have built their own companies and sold their own companies, so they act as role models for their students.

“We often meet students [in the UK] who say: ‘I’ve got this idea; I really want to work on this but I’ve got another two years of study. I don’t know whether to drop out or stay.’ At the moment there seems to be limited flexibility in allowing students to do something that could turn into something quite big – they are bound by their studies.”

Ms Jervier said her organisation currently hires around two-thirds of its graduates from the UK, but this year it is looking to hire 50 per cent from continental Europe and elsewhere.

“I think there is a limited pool of talent in the UK,” she said. “In order for us to grow our numbers, we need to take more people from further afield.”

She said that Imperial College London, University College London and the University of Edinburgh are “leading the way” in the UK in terms of including practical product-building skills into their courses and encouraging students to do internships, but “a lot of universities that try to run entrepreneurial initiatives sometimes get this a bit wrong”. 

“There are a lot of computer science courses in the UK that are taught at a very theoretical level. So at the end of those, people can come out and have never built a product,” she said.

Ms Jervier added that universities should explore what it is actually like to be an entrepreneur in emerging technologies, “and usually that’s focused around building a good tech product people want to use”.

“But right now there tends to be a focus on setting up initiatives like social entrepreneurship, lifestyle businesses and [how to] be-your-own-boss. All of these things actually are not aligned with the kind of companies we’re creating or the companies we believe the biggest opportunities lie with.”

Entrepreneur First, which backs talented individuals before they have a team or a developed idea, launched an £8.5 million fund on 16 July. It will allow 200 people to go through the programme annually from 2016, compared with just 30 in 2011.


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Reader's comments (1)

Great article! The Computer Science Department at ETH Zurich provides a theoretical as well as applied approach to research and learning: http://www.inf.ethz.ch. The university is also set in a vibrant entrepreneurial environment right in the city of Zurich, allowing students to get hands-on experience if they wish.

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