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How UEL is creating entrepreneurs for a growth economy

  • 23 February 2023
  • By Paul Marshall

This guest post has been kindly written for HEPI by Dr Paul Marshall, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Careers & Enterprise at the University of East London.

Within the mountain of detail underlying the recent Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) results, was a remarkable statistic. In the first year of the pandemic, the number of new graduate businesses started up reached 4,528, an average of one every two hours. This was an increase of nearly 20 per cent over the previous academic year.  

If one single statistic demonstrates the ambition of UK graduates, this is it.  

Our own efforts at the University of East London (UEL) were recognised in the results, with an appearance in the top 20 per cent in metrics covering student start-ups. We are currently eighth in the UK for startups as measured by the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction survey.

This is not the culmination of our efforts but the first fruits of a strategy that puts enterprise front and centre, recognising the appetite among students to create their own futures, either as freelancers, consultants, or as entrepreneurs. 

Entrepreneurs supported from day one

With the increasing fragmentation and uncertainty in the jobs market, and the particular dynamic and socio-economic make-up of our East London home, we have identified a need to prepare the entrepreneurs of the future. 

That doesn’t simply reside in teaching students the essential skills of their chosen path – Graphic Art, Product Design, Psychology and so on. We have layered on top specialist support to give these solo careers every chance to prosper.

We created our Mental Wealth and Professional Fitness programme embedded in every degree and tailored to each subject. These modules offer soft skills such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence and resilience, alongside practical expertise such as digital proficiency, money management and industry networking.

Beyond that, we’ve created a whole network of support for entrepreneurs, from mentoring to grants, and opportunities to connect with industry, that provide the sort of interventions that maintain momentum or combat self-doubt. 

All students who join the University will have the opportunity to explore entrepreneurship and what an entrepreneurial career pathway might mean for them.

Decisions that re-shaped our outlook

Two strategic decisions we took illustrate our quest to democratise and share our entrepreneurial mission. 

For 13 years, we ran a major Dragon’s Den style programme, called E-Factor, with a single winner earning a cheque for £6,000 to fund their business. Many of our winners have gone on to flourish, including the celebrated Blair Academy which takes hip-hop classes to disengaged people.

However, we decided that pot of cash would be more impactful in the form of smaller, seed grants to more recipients, reaching out to those students who might not want to enter a competition.

This money, instead, might make the difference between someone taking a chance to invest in their talent, diversifying the entrepreneurial eco-system.

From six major grants to 70 smaller ones – enough money to validate an idea. It was a vote of confidence in their ingenuity; a nudge in the right direction that might make all the difference. In 2021/22, 86 per cent of successful applicants came from a minority background and 63 per cent identified as female, far exceeding sector benchmarks. 

The second decision was to decentralise our enterprise strategy, moving it out of our central careers service and offering support and services directly within our six schools, where it could be allied to careers that students actually wished to pursue. So, our potential podiatrist learn podiatry and, alongside and seamlessly, how to run a clinic as a business. 

Blurring the line between education and enterprise

From this starting point, these early-stage entrepreneurs can further commercialise their idea through East London Talent, our free online marketplace for goods and services, where they can showcase their skills to local small-and-medium sized enterprises (SMEs). This pathway takes students to graduation and beyond, where our alumni network provides lifelong network, mentoring and education support.

This is a true blurring of the line between education and enterprise, with universities as a key stakeholder and influencer in their communities.

Such an ambition is not only useful, it is necessary, especially in places like Newham. Here, we serve one of the most deprived and diverse boroughs in the country. 

People need to start shaping their path to prosperity right now. 

More than half of our students are the first to attend university. More than a quarter of enrolments are over 30 years old, perhaps joining a degree after taking one of New Beginnings courses that prepare students with non-traditional educational backgrounds.

In a study involving over 800 of our first-year students, 28 per cent of this group had children, 26 per cent worked more than 20 hours per week and 12 per cent worked more than 30 hours per week.

For many students, the opportunity to launch their own business is not something they can postpone till after graduation or leave to the marketplace. It has to start from day one. Otherwise many of students would find higher education unviable.

Taking every opportunity to promote enterprise

Every facet of the university’s long-term transformation strategy, encapsulated in Vision 2028, has been teased apart to seek out opportunities to emphasise enterprise as a viable future.

Take one example: sustainability. As an institution, we aim to be net zero carbon by 2030. It is a key plank of Vision 2028. 

We are planning to transform our existing Knowledge Dock into the Royal Docks Centre for Sustainability in partnership with the Mayor of London, Newham Borough Council and Siemens. Crucially, this includes the development of a new Sustainable Enterprise Centre. Sustainability will form part of all our student enterprise programmes and we want to become known as specialists in sustainable incubation and acceleration. 

We exist in London’s only enterprise zone, the Royal Docks. Around us will grow an eco-system of new hi-tech industries with space to grow and a will to foster innovation. Some 35,000 jobs and 4,000 homes are forecast within the zone, and 60,000 jobs and 25,500 homes in the wider area.

We are a link in the chain of this rapid economic growth and opportunity.

This is the virtuous circle we aspire to create, with partners in the public and private sector, each supporting the other, responding to trends and shifts, and flexing to meet the needs of dynamic local economy. 

By the very act of what we do, through the variety of unexpected collaborations between academic disciplines we are a living microcosm of such an eco-system. We are already incubators, wealth generators, community stakeholders and job creators. 

The recent UUK report Our Universities: Generating Growth and Opportunity gave use the evidence that startups and spin outs with links to universities are more likely to survive than those who try to thrive outside this nurturing environment. 

The growth economy starts here.

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