University Alliance > Blog > Universities and entrepreneurship: the next chapter?

Universities and entrepreneurship: the next chapter?

Prof. Madeleine Atkins
Published on July 23, 2013
Image by Ben O’Bryan

Image by Ben O’Bryan

Over the last decade the entrepreneurship story has developed through several chapters. The opening chapter was a matter of IP, spin-outs, licences, and Technology Transfer Offices. Technology Parks, Science Parks and Business Parks were established in close relationship to universities. We became involved with proof-of-concept grants, R&D tax credits, and venture capital funds of various kinds, acquiring useful legal and ‘deal-making’ knowledge along the way. It was a long first chapter.

“Here at Coventry we have established our own ‘Dragon’s Den’ style evergreen fund for start-ups.” 

The storyline moved progressively from staff to students to alumni. Here at Coventry, and thanks to our Chancellor Sir John Egan and other generous donors, we have established our own ‘Dragon’s Den’ style evergreen fund for start-ups, and we continue to use ‘grow-on’ regional funds as well. Many universities now offer incubator spaces to early-stage commercial entrepreneurs, supported by legal, marketing, accountancy and business planning expertise on favourable terms, and mentoring from successful businessmen and women, often alumni or managers from established businesses in the locality. Such venturing, however, while important, does not usually generate substantial sources of additional revenue for the university!

Meanwhile, deeper in the curriculum, ‘employability’ was stirring. In the second chapter we ‘mashed up’ concepts of enterprise, intra-preneurship, and entrepreneurship, seeking to respond to employer demands for graduates who could contribute to the success of their organisation from the first day. Programmes such as the World of Work at Liverpool John Moores and our own Add+vantage programme at Coventry conceptualised a set of capabilities and experiences as being relevant for all undergraduate students. Sometimes embedded in course structures, sometimes standing outside them but nonetheless accredited, we began to take the agenda seriously from a teaching perspective.

“We ‘mashed up’ concepts of enterprise, intra-preneurship, and entrepreneurship, seeking to respond to employer demands for graduates who could contribute to the success of their organisation from the first day.” 

Then, like all good novels, a further set of relationships began to offer potential in the plot: social enterprise. A third chapter has opened and many of us are busy writing its continuation. Given impetus by austerity measures, several agencies, including Local Authorities, have begun to re-conceive of themselves as commissioners of services rather than as deliverers of services. This creates opportunities for social enterprises to achieve sustainability. In tandem, the Government introduced new forms of incorporation for social enterprises and new sources of funding for them too, mirroring in many ways the ‘start up’, ‘grow-on’ and ‘expansion’ funding/investment streams which we had learned to exploit in the earlier commercial chapter.

Image by Value Web

Image by Value Web

So we are meeting some new characters in this chapters such as Community Interest Companies, ‘mutuals’ and crowd sourcing, time and skill banks, and sweat equity. We are learning to work in partnership with new types of third sector organisations. We are doing this because we can see advantages in this movement for our students. Social enterprises offer good opportunities for volunteering, internships and employment destinations – though we will probably have to re-think a little what graduate capabilities are needed to be successful in these companies. Social enterprises also offer us opportunities to deepen our research agendas in areas such as health and social work, community development, green technologies, urban regeneration, hyper-local media – and many more. And social enterprises should help us become more effective ‘anchor institutions’ in our localities, moving us on from the current HEB-CI categories to civic engagement that is deeper-rooted. Certainly, in terms of value position, social enterprise sits more comfortably with some HE staff than its commercial sister. The socio-political critiques of capitalism may be muted at the moment (though the move to put more emphasis on ethics in Business Schools is evident), but they do rightly have a place in our universities.

“There is one more chapter on entrepreneurship being sketched out ahead of us.” 

But I think there is one more chapter on entrepreneurship being sketched out ahead of us. Some call it ‘clicktivism’. It is about setting up new kinds of organisation through the internet to achieve political change. This can challenge us; our mission statements tend not to recognise these virtual spaces. So is it part of our role to encourage our students to be politically active as citizens through sophisticated use of social media? To give them opportunities to discuss and explore what might be good or bad about novel, on-line organisations such as Avaaz.org.? Should we leave it to the commitment of individual students or should we be modelling something like it on our own campuses for all students to experience? So do you want to write this next chapter?

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