While the expansion in entrepreneurship education in Australian universities is impressive when assessed in terms of number of programs and curriculum offerings, a closer look reveals a more complex picture with a range of challenges.
The first postgraduate course focusing on entrepreneurship in Australian universities was introduced in the 1990s and the numbers have grown steadily since. A 2014 review of entrepreneurship education in Australia, for example, reported that over 95 per cent of Australian universities teach entrepreneurship at undergraduate level and 90 per cent at postgraduate level.
Support for entrepreneurship education extends beyond the formal curriculum. For example, peak lobby group Universities Australia has identified more than 100 programs supporting start-ups at the 38 public universities it represents.
In addition to formal curriculum, these initiatives include masterclasses, support for initiatives such as maker-spaces, accelerators and incubators. Many are open to staff, students and alumni, and some offer the backing of seed capital.
Judged in terms of activity and official support, entrepreneurship education would appear to be doing well. But the true picture is more complex.
Entrepreneurship education: A story of uneven support
Entrepreneurship education in Australia tends to be concentrated within business schools, rather than spread more evenly throughout the university. And, as the 2014 review of entrepreneurship education in Australia noted above found, the programs tend to be peripheral and focused more on teaching and pushing out publication, rather than engaging with industry or fostering entrepreneurial enterprises.
From an applied point of view, it is even questionable whether business schools are the natural home of entrepreneurship. While business skills are undoubtedly helpful in bringing an idea to market, the initial idea could come from any discipline.
Attempts to extend entrepreneurship education beyond the confines of the business school meet with mixed results. While entrepreneurship education often enjoys high levels of support from senior academic leaders and from state and Federal legislators and policy makers, the level of support it enjoys among teaching staff is highly uneven.
For example, in 2012 La Trobe University in Melbourne implemented a strategy to make entrepreneurial education — referred to “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” — an integral part of every undergraduate degree.
Each degree would be required to have at least one compulsory subject containing learning and assessment activities about innovation and entrepreneurship. This included one major assessment task on entrepreneurship worth at least 25 per cent of the final grade for the subject. If such a subject could not be fit into content of the degree, students need to be able to take electives to cover the same content — potentially from another part of the university.
In practice, ensuring that all students have access to such content within their degree proved challenging. Degrees accredited by professional bodies, for example, found it difficult to accommodate this requirement, particularly the 25 per cent minimum. While the university valued entrepreneurship education, it was not necessarily a priority for accrediting bodies already struggling with crowded curricula.
Support for the integration of such content also varies across disciplines. As the subject co-ordinator of a public relations subject put it, “If we don’t embed innovation and entrepreneurship, what have we taught them? I don’t think there is a choice. The question is: how quickly can we get it into the curriculum”.
Other teaching staff perceived the decision to integrate innovation and entrepreneurship as imposed in a top-down manner. Asked why she embedded innovation and entrepreneurship in her subject, one academic in the humanities and social sciences said simply “we were told to”.
Entrepreneurship and higher education: a tale of two cultures?
It is noteworthy that many of the more ambitious efforts to encourage entrepreneurship, such as incubators and accelerators, are often established separately — both organisationally, and, in some cases geographically — from their host university.
The University of Wollongong’s iAccelerate program’s offices, for example, are separate from the main campus. iAccelerate even maintains a separate website from the university website.
While such decisions are made for sound reasons, such as creating purpose-built facilities for events and activities that are more appropriate and accessible to businesses and community stakeholders — as is the case for iAccelerate — it can also serve to reinforce differences between the culture of academia and that of entrepreneurship.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the different incentives for academics as compared to entrepreneurs. Career progression in Australian academia remains strongly linked to attracting research income and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.
While commercialising research and patenting intellectual property are strongly encouraged and supported by both institutions and policy makers, this is a less developed path to career progression. Meanwhile, starting new ventures and engaging with industry, while growing, are uncertain paths to career progression.
The cultural differences also extend to the types of teaching and learning encouraged in more innovative hatchery-style and accelerator-type programs. Mentors and facilitators in such programs are often guided by student interest. Even when facilitators introduce topics, it is the students who shape the learning environment and the curriculum through their own specific requirements, interests and perspectives.
In this way the student and the educator negotiate the content and each student strives to achieve their unique determined outcomes. Participants in entrepreneurship education need to be able to handle uncertainty and ambiguity and overcome adverse circumstances.
Such modes of instruction are outside of many academics’ teaching experience. The typical teaching pattern is one where students work through a set curriculum in a prescribed and pedagogical manner in a more formal entrepreneurship course such as in a Business School. These course types emphasise formal planning and skill building. They are often regulated and structured in what they teach by accreditation bodies and government regulations, such as the Australian Qualification Framework (AQF).
In spite of these challenges, time, energy and money is being devoted to overcoming these challenges. These include awareness programs such as boot camps and week-end workshops and pitch competitions to start-ups, accelerators and incubators.
And these efforts are leading to real collaborations between students, staff, alumni and entrepreneurs. For example, the 2017 launch of the SPARK Deakin Accelerator, an initiative of Deakin University in Victoria, saw 100 mentors, staff and members of the start-up community come together to pitch ideas and seek funding.
While the program does not have connections to the formal curriculum, it has established a solid series of entrepreneurship and networking events, right through to workshops for students to gain hands-on experience in start-up skills. The program offers $10,000 AUD in Deakin funding for start-ups along with space and mentoring opportunities for successful start-up ideas.
Entrepreneurship education in universities is also being assisted by government funding initiatives. Recently the Victorian government launched a $60 million start-up initiative LaunchVic.
One of the 18 projects that shared in the first round of funding included La Trobe University, in a partnership with Deakin University and Federation University. This will focus on developing regional start-ups by providing funding, mentoring, and access to university experts working in the areas of sport, engineering, law, business, marketing and media.
While these will not solve institutional constraints, entrenched attitudes and ingrained cultural barriers, they do nevertheless offer a start in advancing entrepreneurship education within higher education. The success of such initiatives will be when they offer measurable progress in enhancing employability and proven models for growing the next generation of entrepreneurs.
This article originally appeared in 2018 University Industry innovation Magazine issue 2 dedicated to Entrepreneurship in Education. You can download the magazine in full for free here.
Dr Christopher Scanlon is Associate Director, Transformation & Learning Enhancement in the Learning Transformations Unit, at Swinburne University. He has a track record of driving strategic change in higher education, which has been recognised with an Australian Government Office of Learning and Teaching National Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning.
Dr Silvia McCormack is the Academic Coordinator Coursework at La Trobe University in the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce. She is strongly committed to the success of the University and its students and to the student experience. Her role involves the development, promotion, implementation and evaluation of strategies to foster high-quality and innovative approaches to curriculum design, course development and learning and teaching.