The road to a nation of business builders

October 31, 1997

While others are being encouraged to carve out their own careers by setting up in business.

UNIVERSITIES must cultivate students' entrepreneurial spirit, higher education minister Tessa Blackstone said at a conference of the Association of Business Schools last week.

She was taking up a theme of the Dearing report which recommended that "institutions should consider the scope for encouraging entrepreneurship through innovative approaches to programme design and through specialist postgraduate programmes".

Baroness Blackstone told conference delegates: "Many of you will be doing this already, but I would encourage you to try to do more."

She said that self employment is a "rarely considered" career option for undergraduate and postgraduate students. But it is destined to become an increasingly realistic route for many in the coming years. In 1996, 13 per cent of the workforce was self-employed, and this is expected to rise to 15 per cent by 2006. At the moment, less than 1 per cent of graduates start up their own businesses.

Apart from a few units in a handful of business studies programmes, entrepreneurship has barely impinged on university teaching. Perhaps because it is impossible to teach.

"An entrepreneur is born," said David Wright, deputy director of Strathclyde Graduate Business School. "Often an entrepreneur's business success is sparked by a creative act, and the individual has to be hungry for success. These things can't be taught."

But an entrepreneur's instincts can be honed in a hands-on business school environment, he believes. Strathclyde runs three MBA electives in entrepreneurship.

Professor Wright adds: "There is a side which can be taught. There is a factual side and there are mechanics. For instance, people tend to seek only confirming evidence in a new venture. They don't seek dis-confirming evidence against their own view. So we prepare people to create a strategy that is robust against a range of scenarios you can't predict."

He also believes that budding entrepreneurs can be taught essential interpersonal skills.

"Once someone has a business idea, they have to be able to convince others it is a runner. We develop personal selling and presentation skills."

Bill Bolton, founder of Cambridge University's St John's Innovation Centre, and author of The University Handbook on Enterprise Development, argues that university life buries and represses entrepreneurial instincts.

He said: "Our education system teaches too much analysis. So if a student had a great business start-up idea, by the time they got round to analysing it, someone else would have got the idea and made a success of it."

Dr Bolton is promoting a series of "enterprise development" programmes, trying to persuade universities to create an entrepreneurial culture and set up dedicated entrepreneur schools - as well as to buy his book.

"I ran a course in engineering, with finance and management at Cambridge University in 1979," he said. And he set up an academic project where the students had to start up their own imaginary business.

"The whole thing took off. My colleagues were complaining because the students were not attending their lectures. Some actually quit the course to set up in business."

Dr Bolton believes that about 15 per cent of the student population harbour latent entrepreneurial instincts, just waiting to be realised.

"The drive is deep inside people. And it has to be coaxed out to show itself. But our education system is anti-entrepreneur."

He agrees that some students will be lost causes, and cannot be trained. It is important that institutions do not just cash in. So he advocates periphery entrepreneurship programmes across undergraduate disciplines, designed to discover the latent talent, followed by dedicated postgraduate courses at masters level, only for those who have shown the necessary instincts.

"Courses for entrepreneurs must not be too structured. The secret of the programmes is that they must be great fun - a long way from the traditional MBA."

He advocates psychological profiling, helping the students to understand themselves - whether they are a team entrepreneur or an individual.

Sir Ron Dearing was impressed by an MBA programme in entrepreneurship at Babson College in the United States, where students were given a lump sum at the start of the programme to set up a business which they had to repay at the end of the programme. Profit went to charity. As Dr Bolton insists: "They have to be as close to the real world as possible."

Dr Bolton's business partner, Martjin Mugge, believes that universities could cash in on not just the pulling power of the courses, but on the fruits of the entrepreneurs' work through the creation of incubator centres.

"Universities cannot only create the entrepreneurs, they can also create the products and innovations that could become the hub of the entrepreneur's business. There is so much work going on that remains in the academic world, but could have commercial applications. There are so many opportunities to make money, but it just doesn't happen."

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