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Entrepreneurship as a driver of civic value in universities

  • 29 September 2022
  • By Kevin Kerrigan

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Kevin Kerrigan, Pro Vice-Chancellor Business and Enterprise, Sheffield Hallam University. It is the second in our series of blogs on leadership in partnership with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE).

We live in interesting times 

While the terror of the ‘demographic dip’ may have receded (at least temporarily), a funding freeze, pension pressures, inflation and volatile demand has led to dismal financial projections even while vice-chancellors are accused of sitting on multi-billion-pound surpluses. Policy sharks have been circling, citing elitism, spending profligacy, unequal outcomes and low value for money. Politicians inevitably pick up on this mood and become more open to alternatives to university education or proposals to cut down on ‘low value degrees’, ‘grade inflation’, and so forth. There have even been calls for the re-introduction of the ‘binary divide’ between academic and technical institutions. When the New Statesman is publishing long reads entitled, ‘The Great University Con’ there is more than a little local difficulty to address. At a time when higher education is expanding right around the world there is a depressing and hostile undercurrent at home which questions the very purpose of universities.   

Meanwhile, there is insufficient evidence of a concerted, collective fightback in the sector, and despite some excellent university work during the COVID-19 pandemic higher education has struggled to convey a compelling narrative about its broader contribution to economy and society. It is essential that vice-chancellors and those who believe in the transformative value of universities develop imaginative, innovative and accessible propositions about how the sector offers value to the world.

What are universities for? 

One positive recent development is the increased attention paid to documenting and formalising university commitments to their regions. The UPP Civic University Commission report called on universities to commit to being truly local by having clear strategies rooted in analysis that shows what, why and how they benefit the people and place in which they are located. Universities have responded enthusiastically to this request, and many are using a ‘civic university agreement’ as an opportunity to elevate their applied purpose within their institutional strategy and connect this meaningfully to their local and regional context. 

I believe that entrepreneurship within universities has a major contribution to play in this regard. Broadly understood, entrepreneurial approaches to university strategy and activities help reveal the true value a university brings to its community in ways that can resonate with students, staff and the public. It has the potential to bring the concept of civic university to life and deliver real impact. 

This requires us to be expansive, inclusive and outspoken in relation to the range and reach of our entrepreneurial initiatives. It also necessitates a long-term, strategic approach with investment in people and structures. Ultimately, it requires the encouragement of entrepreneurial mindsets and cultures across the university community. 

I have neither the space nor the inclination to delve into definitional debates here. If you prefer to call this approach enterprising, applied, engaged, connected, creative or the like, feel free. The critical thing is being purposeful in highlighting and expanding a core set of values, strategies and initiatives as delivering value way beyond traditional conceptions of research and teaching.

Indicative characteristics of entrepreneurial universities    

While dodging semantic cul-de-sacs, it may be helpful to offer examples of features that serve to make up entrepreneurial universities in ways that speak to a wider community contribution (or value for money, if you like).

Applied learning

Entrepreneurial approaches to learning tend to include a special focus on active learning methods. Classroom activities may emphasise integration of knowledge and skills so that students regularly perform or present in ways that simulate workplace or community contexts and present knowledge in realistic ways. Experiential learning either within the curriculum or as extra-curricular initiatives are widespread, for example, public engagement events, debates, moot trials, simulated clinical practice, science competitions, business pitch events and final degree shows. 

Placements, internships and field trips are routine aspects of many degree programmes so that students interact with industry or community contexts relevant to their studies. Sandwich degrees are proven to enhance business awareness and employability and to deepen skills and competencies. Thriving incubator and accelerator programmes, if deployed well, not only provide start-up opportunities for student or graduate owned businesses but enrich the wider curriculum and provide a pipeline of talent and investment potential into the regional economy. 

Some universities enable students to provide real community services to clients or client groups. Examples are law clinics, design services, events co-ordination, health MOTs, digital diagnostics and business consultancies. These service-learning models are intended to enable students to experience varied social, political and economic contexts and at least some of the uncertainty and discipline they will encounter in the real world of work. They can also provide valuable free or subsidised services that help weave the university into the fabric of their communities. 

Industry partnerships

Universities are often accused, often legitimately, of being difficult to penetrate. Opening universities to businesses and community organisations is a good example of entrepreneurialism. A porous campus enriches the life of everyone, not only direct partners. Crucially, these relationships need to be part of routine engagement strategies, not transactional or ad hoc in nature.

In addition to the now well-established placement, internship and apprenticeship programmes it is increasingly common to find extensive employer and industry group partnerships including support for graduate recruitment, staff training / continuing professional development (CPD), consultancy, incubation or accelerator programmes, university science parks, contract research, etc. Employer or industry advisory boards can be hugely valuable to inform portfolio developments and provide access to wider networks. 

Strong links with local and national industry groups such as the Confederation of British Industry, and Chambers of Commerce plus cultural and heritage groups alongside regional policy or development forums helps to cement universities into and life of their communities and confirm their position as anchor institutions. Strong professional body presence and influence is another aspect of this applied approach where accreditations, exemptions and validation agreements maximise the skills and employability of graduates. 

Real world problem solving

UK universities are well known for world leading fundamental or basic research that addresses generalised contexts and universal issues or theories. It is also important to emphasise the brilliant work done that focuses on application of knowledge to specific contexts and for particular purposes, addressing problems or opportunities and helping to commercialise innovations through knowledge exchange initiatives such as university spins outs, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, contract research and consultancy schemes. 

Within the same theme, universities can do more to work with local authorities and other partners to support economic development through regeneration, business growth, skills and international trade. Universities are often delivery partners in multi-million-pound structural or economic development projects such as accelerator schemes, skills development programmes, small- to medium-sized enterprises (SME) hubs and so on. 

Organisation and people

Entrepreneurial approaches will only endure if the institution is structurally and culturally conducive to this way of working. Establishing infrastructures and teams to support the activities outlined above is part of the answer but insufficient on its own. There also needs to be clear vision and sustained leadership from the top of the university, along with encouragement and incentives for staff and students to engage with entrepreneurial projects. Ensuring curriculum structures, workload systems and staff progression opportunities appropriately reflect these initiatives is really important. Also valuable are recruitment strategies that encourage a permeable staff base, e.g. hiring academics directly from industry or professions, clinical or practice professors, executives, designers or clinicians in residence and so on. Other innovations include more liberal approaches to intellectual property exploitation, industry secondments, flexible sabbatical schemes, etc. 

It may not be possible to manufacture an institutional culture, but encouraging, showcasing and creating space for innovation, collaboration and balanced risk-taking will make universities more entrepreneurial and make them more interesting places to learn and work. 

The entrepreneurial university’s time has come

The role of universities has been under intense scrutiny over recent years from policymakers, the media and students. The ‘ivory tower’ caricature of universities as elite, remote and inaccessible persists despite massive expansion of participation and tiptoeing democratisation. Challenges around social relevance, value for money and inclusivity abound and it is no longer viable for universities to adopt an inward-looking, supply-side approach towards their business. 

The concept of entrepreneurship speaks to the richness and depth of university contribution to society. Such universities are rooted in place, make a positive impact on economies and communities, focus on student and other stakeholder needs, and offer relevance to people’s lives. They are not just of a place but also for a place with extensive and authentic connections into the civic institutions and communities they serve. 

It is therefore timely to challenge perceptions, reboot our brand and make the political case for nurturing entrepreneurial attributes through encouragement, incentives and investment. This means embracing applied principles and celebrating their benefits. It means reflecting this in the institution’s mission and using civic university agreements as a means of sustainably connecting the university’s future to that of the community. In this way we can build a distinctive vision for a new kind of excellent university that makes a positive impact in the real world.

Our last blog in the series:

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  1. An engaging and appropriate article that should provoke thinking and action at all levels expanding the paradigm of entrepreneurship to include social agency. Thank you.

  2. It is true that the role of universities has been under intense scrutiny over recent years. The concept of entrepreneurship speaks to the richness and depth of university contribution to society.

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