Entrepreneurship as a driver of civic value in universities

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

We live in interesting times

While the horror of the “demographic slump” may have receded (at least temporarily), a funding freeze, pension pressures, inflation and volatile demand have led to bleak financial prospects, even as Vice Chancellors are accused of sitting on billions of pounds in surplus. Political sharks circled, naming elitism, waste of spending, unequal outcomes and low value for money. Politicians inevitably pick up on this sentiment and become more open to alternatives to college education or proposals to reduce “low-quality degrees,” “grade inflation,” and so on. There have even been calls for the reintroduction of the “binary divide” between academic and technical institutions. If the New statesman published long books called The Great University Con, there’s more than a few local troubles to solve. At a time when higher education is expanding worldwide, there is a depressing and hostile undercurrent at home that challenges the very purpose of universities.

In the meantime, there is insufficient evidence of a concerted, collective struggle in the industry, and despite some excellent university work during the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education has struggled to present a compelling account of its broader contribution to the economy and society. It is vital that Vice Chancellors and those who believe in the transformative value of universities develop imaginative, innovative and accessible proposals on how the sector adds value to the world.

What are universities for?

A positive recent development is the increased attention given to documenting and formalizing the commitment of universities to their regions. The UPP Civic University Commission report calls on universities to commit to being truly local by having clear policies backed by analytics showing what, why and how they serve the people and place where they are located, benefit. Universities have responded enthusiastically to this request and many are using a ‘university civic agreement’ as an opportunity to highlight their applied purpose within their institutional strategy and link this meaningfully to their local and regional context.

I believe that entrepreneurship within universities can make an important contribution in this regard. Widely understood entrepreneurial approaches to university strategies and activities help reveal the true value a university brings to its community in a way that can resonate with students, staff and the public. It has the potential to bring the concept of the citizen university to life and make a real impact.

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This requires us to be expansive, inclusive and open in terms of the reach and reach of our entrepreneurial initiatives. It also requires a long-term, strategic approach with investments in people and structure. Ultimately, it requires fostering entrepreneurial mindsets and cultures throughout the university community.

I have neither the space nor the inclination to engage in definitional debates here. If you prefer to call this approach entrepreneurial, applied, engaged, connected, creative or whatever, don’t hesitate. It is crucial to specifically emphasize and develop core values, strategies and initiatives that provide added value far beyond traditional ideas of research and teaching.

Indicative characteristics of entrepreneurial universities

While semantics evade dead endsit may be helpful to offer examples of features that serve to shape entrepreneurial universities in a way that speaks for broader contribution to the community (or value for money, if you like).

applied learning

Entrepreneurial learning approaches usually have a special focus on active learning methods. Classroom activities can emphasize the integration of knowledge and skills so that students regularly perform or present in a manner that simulates workplace or community contexts and presents knowledge in a realistic manner. Experiential learning either within the curriculum or as extracurricular initiatives are common, for example public events, debates, moot trials, simulated clinical practice, science competitions, business pitch events and graduation shows.

Internships, internships and field trips are routine aspects of many degree programs to allow students to interact with industrial or community contexts relevant to their studies. Dual degrees have been proven to promote business awareness and employability, and deepen skills and competencies. Successful incubator and accelerator programs, when deployed well, not only provide startup opportunities for student- or graduate-owned businesses, but enrich the broader curriculum and provide a pipeline of talent and investment potential into the regional economy.

Some universities allow students to provide true community services to clients or groups of clients. Examples are legal clinics, design services, event coordination, health MOT, digital diagnostics and management consultancies. These service-learning models are designed to enable students to experience different 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 offer valuable free or subsidized services that help integrate the university into the fabric of their communities.

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industry partnerships

Universities are often, and often rightly, accused of being difficult to penetrate. Opening universities to business and community organizations is a good example of entrepreneurship. A permeable campus enriches everyone’s life, not just direct partners. Crucially, these relationships need to be part of routine engagement strategies, not transactional or ad hoc in the nature.

Alongside the now-established placement, internship and apprenticeship schemes, one can increasingly find extensive partnerships between employers and industry groups, including graduate recruitment assistance, staff training/continuous professional development (CPD), consultancy, incubation or accelerator programs, university science parks, contract research etc. Employer or industry advisory councils can be extremely valuable in informing portfolio developments and providing access to wider networks.

Strong links with local and national industry groups such as the Confederation of British Industry and Chambers of Commerce and cultural and heritage groups alongside regional policy or development forums help to solidify universities in and the 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 maximize graduate skills and employability.

Problem solving in the real world

British universities are known for their world-leading basic or fundamental research, which deals with general contexts and universal subjects or theories. It is also important to highlight the brilliant work done, focusing on the application of knowledge in specific contexts and for specific purposes, addressing problems or opportunities, and helping to commercialize innovation through knowledge sharing initiatives such as university spin-offs, knowledge transfer partnerships, contract research and consultancy programs.

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

organization and people

Entrepreneurial approaches will only survive if the institution is structurally and culturally conducive to this way of working. Building infrastructure and teams to support the activities outlined above is part of the answer, but insufficient on its own. There must also be a clear vision and sustained leadership from the top of the university, along with encouragement and incentives for staff and students to engage in entrepreneurial projects. It is really important to ensure that the curriculum structures, workload systems and staff advancement opportunities appropriately reflect these initiatives. Recruitment strategies that promote a permeable human resources base are also valuable, e.g. B. the hiring of academics directly from industry or from the professions, clinical or practical professors, executives, designers or general practitioners and so on. Other innovations include more liberal approaches to intellectual property exploitation, industry delegations, flexible sabbatical programs, etc.

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

The time of the entrepreneurial university has come

The role of universities has come under intense scrutiny by policy makers, the media and students in recent years. The “ivory tower” caricature of universities as elitist, remote and inaccessible persists despite massive expansion of participation and creeping democratization. There are many challenges related to social relevance, value for money and inclusivity, and it is no longer sustainable for universities to take an inward, supply-side approach to their business.

The concept of entrepreneurship speaks to the richness and depth of the university’s contribution to society. Such universities are rooted in the locality, positively impact economies and communities, focus on the needs of students and other stakeholders, and provide relevance to people’s lives. You are not fair from a place but also to the a place with deep and authentic connections to the civic institutions and communities they serve.

It is therefore time to challenge perceptions, reboot our brand and advocate politically to promote entrepreneurial attributes through encouragement, incentives and investment. That means embracing applied principles and celebrating their benefits. It means reflecting this in the mission statement of the institution and connecting the future of the university with that of society in the long term through civil society university agreements. In this way, we can develop a distinctive vision for a new breed of university excellence that will have a positive impact in the real world.

Our last blog in the series: