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Teaching intelligence: how to encourage entrepreneurship

Written by: Anna McKie
Published on: 5 May 2021

Paragliders compete on their “tandem bicycle” in Saint-Hilaire du Touvet, France, 2012, illustrating entrepreneurship

Source: Getty

In the not-so-distant past, the idea of entrepreneurship in universities was largely confined to business schools or engineering departments. But with rapid change in the world of work has come recognition that many disciplines across an institution can be ripe sources of innovation. Plus, teaching students how to set up new businesses emboldens them with skills that can be applied in a variety of ways.

Mark Dodgson, professor of innovation studies at the University of Queensland and visiting professor at Imperial College London, said there had been an “explosion” of courses in entrepreneurship around the world in recent years. One study found that Australia’s 41 universities offered nearly 600 subjects related to entrepreneurship, he said.

However, universities must ensure they have the right people teaching these courses. Professor Dodgson warned against a tendency to get adjunct professors or local entrepreneurs to come in and tell “war stories” without any scholarly depth.

“You do need robust scholarship underlying the lessons about entrepreneurship,” he said. “There are some things entrepreneurs can teach, such as how do you develop a business model? How do you attract finance? But there’s also a lot of important work on how you communicate across barriers. So, if you're coming from engineering school, how do you talk to people from business? You can’t teach behavioural science insights from [workplace] experience.”

He added that, at the same time, a purely academic perspective might not work, either: “Ideally, this will be taught by people with robust academic backgrounds who have been involved in starting up companies or on the boards of companies [and] who understand the stresses and strains of businesses.”

This is, unfortunately, not very common, which is why universities should encourage faculty to consult or sit on boards, he said. Often, universities end up deterring staff from doing so by taking too large a slice of their earnings as a result, Professor Dodgson warned.  

He also advised universities to make sure their entrepreneurial teaching was available for students in the humanities, arts and social sciences, too. “There is a lot of entrepreneurship in the creative industries, for example,” he said. And there is a range of ways that social science knowledge fits into entrepreneurship, from the economics of how to build a value-creating organisation and how to manage cash flow to how people behave in a team and the ethics of business, he said.

Successful start-ups often have a broad intellectual base, so by training people from the social sciences and humanities in entrepreneurship, they will be able to contribute to entrepreneurship not only in their field but other fields, too, Professor Dodgson explained.

This was particularly important given the recent “reassessment of the purpose of business education − people are much more interested in understanding how they can contribute to improving the world we live in”, he added.

This was echoed by Marek Tokarski, a senior enterprise manager at Durham University, who said that students are really interested in how to think in an innovative way about the big questions in the world: “This is something we are focusing on at Durham: it’s not just about how do you set up a business and make yourself a living, but how do you actually grow a business that can employ other people and, ultimately, makes the world a better place?”

However, it is still important that universities play to their strengths. For example, Mr Tokarski said Edinburgh Napier University has a strong Freelance Academy, because their discipline strengths are in subjects that suit that kind of entrepreneurship, such as graphic design, photography or fashion design, but this would not work for Durham. 

“It’s just about looking at what you think the students actually want to achieve and making sure you’ve got the right programmes,” he said. It is also about the language used, as certain students get put off by too much focus on words such as “business” or “enterprise”, he added.  

“What we found is that we've often got to kind of do it almost by stealth,” he said. So, one of Durham’s programmes, Game Changer, sets challenges based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, working in teams from the idea through to development and “allowing them to see how they can engage with one of the world’s problems”.

“It’s also important that even if they decide after university that they don't want to start a business, that they recognise that what they have learned will still be useful,” he said. “We’ve found graduate recruiters are interested in the skills they develop through [such programmes].”

To make sure that all students from all disciplines can access entrepreneurial teaching, Durham has made the programmes extracurricular while also embedding them within the curriculum for subjects where it is appropriate.

For Mr Tokarski, one of the most important roles of universities is “to inspire people to engage with enterprise entrepreneurship, to actually think about what impact they could have on the world and the different opportunities available to them”.