Set a course to make a packet

July 14, 2006

Business can be a creative and rewarding experience, so invest in your students by encouraging them to develop ideas, to take the initiative and to engage with the local community, suggests Harriet Swain

One of your students won a Nobel prize. Another has produced the seminal reference book in your field. Two have chaired government commissions. Still, wouldn't it be nice one of these days to produce someone who became very, very rich?

If you want students to be more entrepreneurial, you need first to think about the attributes of an entrepreneur, says Allan Gibb, professor emeritus of small business management at Durham University Business School.

Such attributes include looking for opportunities, taking the initiative, making decisions, thinking in terms of people, seeing things through, identifying problems and finding creative solutions. "List these things, then think about pedagogies you might use to develop them," he suggests.

Your teaching should give students ownership of their learning, increase the element of self-discovery and relate what they are doing to real problems. The convention that a student produces a good piece of work that is then discussed and put to one side is wrong, he says. "In the real world, you do it again, practise it and do it better." Gibb runs a class on ways to improve work, at the end of which he tells students to go away and revise what they have produced.

Paul Hannon, director of research and education at the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, says that if you are designing a course to encourage entrepreneurship you have to be clear about what you want to achieve. You may want students to develop entrepreneurial attitudes and values and/or to gain a sense of what it is really like to be an entrepreneur.

Luke Pittaway, director of the enterprise and regional development unit at Sheffield University Management School, says learning to be enterprising involves more practical elements than traditional university teaching, and it is worth thinking about ways of using your teaching to reflect this. He advises thinking about what enterprise means for your discipline. You can then incorporate relevant content in your programme. For example, in one university students operate a software company as part of their computer science degrees. In medicine, you could help students think about how to go about setting up a GP surgery; in dance or music you may focus on skills needed for managing a portfolio career.

In some subjects, in particular the social sciences, Pittaway says the idea of enterprise may be politically sensitive. But even if you use different terms, you could still incorporate ways for students to learn about finding creative solutions or meet people linked to the field. Gibb says that engaging students with people working in their subject discipline is a valuable way of keeping them connected to the real world. You should help them to get to know this "community of practice", be it in engineering, bioscience or music. At the same time, Gibb advocates getting students to mix with counterparts in other disciplines to help them realise the value of working together.

He argues that the ability to develop good relationships is key to becoming a successful entrepreneur. He likes to encourage students to interview people and to note not only what they are saying but also their body language. This helps them to develop empathy. "The essence of a good entrepreneur is to get into the shoes of customers."

Keith Gore, executive director of Students in Free Enterprise UK, a global non-profit organisation that challenges teams on university campuses to develop community outreach projects, says academics need to encourage students to consider getting involved in the community. He says: "This has two advantages. It gives them opportunities to focus their inquiries and see results, and they can also do a tremendous amount of good." Not only is corporate responsibility becoming a bigger issue in the business world, but students are more likely to impress future employers if they have some real-world experience, he says.

Manu Bhardwaj, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at Nottingham University, has developed a new wheelchair design. He says he is motivated by the idea of changing people's standard of living. Lecturers who get their students to help with projects that have a clear impact on people's lives are likely to inspire entrepreneurial spirit, he suggests. But they also need to give students the chance to develop basic entrepreneurial skills such as pitching ideas and giving short presentations.

His advice to lecturers is to be more proactive and enthusiastic about entrepreneurship. "Say that starting a business is not a bad thing," he says. "Tell students they are not doomed to failure." He says you need to advise students about the many schemes available to help the entrepreneurial among them.

Hannon advises finding out what others are doing generally and in your subject discipline in particular so you can learn from them. He says you need to get students to think about life after university and to become involved in extracurricular activities that will help them later.

Pittaway says you need to get them to see their involvement in student societies in an entrepreneurial light as well as encouraging them to join enterprise schemes such as Students in Free Enterprise or Young Enterprise or the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship's Flying Start programme.

But he stresses that it is important to identify what individual students want. Some will simply hope to become more enterprising, while others will have firm ambitions to become the next Richard Branson.

Further information Students in Free Enterprise: www.sife.org

Young Enterprise, a charity running business and enterprise education programmes: www.young-enterprise.org.uk

National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship: www.ncge.org.uk

top tips

Identify what makes an entrepreneur

Identify what makes an entrepreneur in your discipline

Design your course and teaching to reflect this

Find out about extracurricular schemes for students

Remind them of the real world

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