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SIEF Webinar No. 3: Creating entrepreneurial universities: the new frontier

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

4th December 2020

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With generous support from the OECD and St Aidan’s College at Durham University the Societal Innovation and Enterprise Forum (SIEF) webinar series turned its focus to the ability of universities to become more entrepreneurial in order to respond to, cope with, and indeed potentially benefit from significant change, volatility and uncertainty in these corona times.

The third webinar was moderated by Professor Andrew Atherton, Global Director of Transnational Education, Navitas. The international panel included:

Entrepreneurship can make the world a better place

Amongst other engagements with the OECD Allan served as policy advisor to the OECD/ UNIDO Forum on Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development. Dr Raffaele Trapasso, Team Leader at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Cities and Regions delivered the opening remarks, celebrating Professor Allan Gibb's legacy and the ability of entrepreneurship to transform ideas into sustainable innovation for a better world. He said: “Professor Allan Gibb’s vision for entrepreneurship education has inspired national policies, and international initiatives, promoting entrepreneurship education and entrepreneurial mindsets in higher education”.

SIEF are also pleased to have the support of the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE) in this webinar series. Allan Gibb’s first published paper about the concept of the Entrepreneurial University was published by the then NCGE (now called NCEE) in 2005. Allan collaborated with colleagues Professor Paul Hannon and Ian Robertson from NCEE and Gay Haskins and Dr Pegram Harrison from Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford to develop the concept for, and then launch the Entrepreneurial University Leadership Programme (EULP) in 2010, which still runs today under the leadership of NCEE.

Universities as ever-evolving entrepreneurial entities

The first round of discussion on the panel reflected on the ability of universities to stimulate and sponsor entrepreneurial behaviour. Dr Todd Davey highlighted there seemed to be some inertia to change across the higher education sector. Informed by the insight from many professionals and leaders across industry and government, gathered together in the 2018 'Future of Universities Thoughtbook', he made it clear universities have no choice but to embrace uncertainty for survival. Competitive threats from the likes of global MOOCs have been a shot across the bow, but he predicts that the next disruptive innovations may not miss. Better for universities to self-regulate, become more proactive in their wider communities and evolve now. It is not that universities are incapable of incorporating entrepreneurial principles, adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, and facilitating proactive and productive entrepreneurial activity that does not compromise education and research values. There are many excellent examples to draw upon, such as the University of Twente (Netherlands), University of Waterloo (Canada), and Coventry University (UK), but they remain the exception rather than the norm.

Professor Sunčica Oberman Peterka concurred the debate is no longer about whether universities need to be entrepreneurial or not. Operating in complex, ambiguous and uncertain times, they have no choice but to be proactive; be more innovative and entrepreneurial to address the problems they face. Taking responsibility, more so than accountability, and accepting a certain amount of risk is crucial. Entrepreneurship is neither about the commercialisation of university nor the harming of research and teaching.

Perhaps, added Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, we should accept education and knowledge creation is by nature, entrepreneurial and enterprising. If we consider generating ideas, taking advantage of opportunities, and making things happen, it is fair to say many universities are indeed entrepreneurial. It could be more purposeful to construct the discussion around whether universities can evolve into entities that engage meaningfully with all their stakeholders, maintain a focus on the ever-evolving needs of society, and ensure authentic educational provision. The issue is that current institutional structures are not flexible and agile enough to support this type of reinvention.

Sunčica was explicit in her view that the management of the university is responsible for creating and nurturing the entrepreneurial culture, be that in a public or private institution. Being entrepreneurial often challenges the established practice and often prompts change that for many within institutes of higher education can be difficult to take on board. It is a positive sign many individuals within these environments have started entrepreneurial initiatives, sowing seeds of change, with a promise of more to come.

Todd added that the uncertainties brought about by the current pandemic have brought an added impetus for change and also sped up the changes needed. Still, the design and adoption of fresh incentives remain essential to achieving the required changes. These are needed to help encourage appropriate accountability, reduce bureaucracy and open up more flexibility and opportunity for staff to apply themselves in a more entrepreneurial way. And in place of the small pots of funding against vague engagement targets for links with employers, a more focused, favourable national policy for active stakeholder engagement is needed. Furthermore, academic staff who are not active in research for publication but are engaged in excellent entrepreneurial teaching should be rewarded, with a clear career path, irrespective of their ability to get published.

Disablers or constraints on enterprise entrepreneurship

Responding to questions from webinar participants on the incompatibility of an entrepreneurial university and the focus on research, Professor Emeritus Andy Penaluna offered the view that the university system places too much emphasis on writing for academic journals; this creates a glass ceiling for many entrepreneurial educators. With a reference to Guy Kawasaki, he noted that 'pursuing ability, not just knowledge' should be the mantra.

Contributing further to this point, Elena highlighted the tensions and motivations for doing academic research and its link to promotion routes. Inflexible structures and bureaucracy contribute to the lack of agility. On the other hand, Sunčica quoted Allan Gibb and explained 'an entrepreneurial university would combine excellence in research with a constant eye upon key areas of future needs of society, domestic and international and would build flexible scenarios accordingly'. There is work still to be done on amending promotion criteria at universities when journal publishing has little connection to solving the problems of society.

Encouraging the 'pracademic'

Mirroring the QAA guidance for entrepreneurial graduates, Andy suggested the aim should ultimately be the development of agile and adaptable universities, equipped with an enhanced capacity to generate ideas. There should also be space for the 'pracademics', academics who are practitioners or run businesses. If a member of staff has an idea, it should not be a case of seeking approval via death by committee. Widescale cultural change is needed, including a break from the current institutional model often preoccupied with measurement and status. The entrepreneurial institution instead needs to focus on its sense of purpose, not short-term goals. Universities need to decide whether they are learning institutions or learned institutions. Currently hindered by the exigencies of research excellence frameworks, Andy passionately championed multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research that first and foremost facilitates practical application.

No one-size fits all model but some shared attributes

Todd cautioned about prescriptive descriptions of a model entrepreneurial university. Instead, we should recognise some institutional elements can be entrepreneurial, without expecting university management to demand that entrepreneurial action must be evident everywhere across the institution. Even the best examples are imperfect models. It would be healthier to embrace diversity when defining 'an entrepreneurial university'. His own key ingredients include: (a) both a top-down and a bottom-up approach; (b) clear allocation of resources to support entrepreneurial action; (c) an evolved recruitment and incentive scheme that rewards entrepreneurial experience and behaviours; and (d) the embedding of entrepreneurial mindsets. These all flow through to various forms of entrepreneurial activity, from student start-ups and academic spin-outs to entrepreneurial academics who collaborate with industry or civic / third sector organisations. Referencing Allan's work, he also pointed to the importance of a university's regional or wider stakeholder support role, e.g. supporting local SMEs and industry sectors.

Sunčica concurred with the view that there are many manifestations of entrepreneurial behaviour in universities, and various routes to becoming entrepreneurial. But she also emphasised the need for overarching institutional support for all staff with regards to facilitating entrepreneurship and engagement with wider stakeholders as a necessary and valued endeavour of what a university is for.

Kindness, empathy and authentic practice

Drawing upon Allan's research, authentic learning, kindness and empathy are conducive to an entrepreneurial culture, said Elena. A focus on theoretical or research approaches can undermine learning – the authenticity of the learning experience matters, supporting learners with their development.

Andy reinforced this view by referencing the positive inclusion of such approaches in the new Welsh school and college curriculum, which places being enterprising at its heart. Hence actively seeking collaborations outside the university to foster such actions and behaviours, whether that be with further education (FE) or schools, is also important.

Concluding remarks

Andrew Atherton concluded the session by asking the panellists to select one creation, decision or act to create an entrepreneurial learning university.

  • Todd concluded that the reduction of institutional barriers whilst facilitating the drivers for entrepreneurial activity is critical. He emphasised prioritising the right incentives at an institutional level as being important for encouraging entrepreneurial endeavour in universities.

  • Sunčica emphasised the need to reduce bureaucracy, as it demotivates engagement in change. She highlighted the importance of developing an entrepreneurial culture within universities that enables the change needed to achieve this.

  • Andy and Elena agreed on the importance of the need for more authentic learning as a key part of the student experience, and for evaluation of learner performance to be more authentic and closely connected to the development of competencies needed in industry. This is important for work-ready graduates to be able to apply their learning directly into practice.

Andrew thanked all the panellists and the participants for their active contribution in the breakout rooms. He closed by thanking the SIEF Forum Organising Team for all their hard work: Dinah Bennett, Susan Frenk, Ted Fuller, Yolanda Gibb, Gay Haskins, Keith Herrmann, Colin Jones, Andy Penaluna, Kathryn Penaluna, Jane Rindl, Slavica Singer, Mike Thomas and Marju Unt.


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