Professor David A. Kirby, Holder of The Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, is one of the UK’s founding fathers of Entrepreneurship Education (EE). His interest in EE started in the early 1980s at the University of Wales. He was appointed to the UK’s first Chair in Entrepreneurship at the University of Durham in 1989. Before moving to Egypt in 2007, to help launch The British University in Egypt, he was Pro-Vice Chancellor at Middlesex University, and Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Surrey. Here, I take the opportunity to engage with Professor Kirby on his multi-decade EE research and practice.
Nearly two decades ago you famously posed the question “Entrepreneurship Education, can Business Schools meet the challenge?” (Kirby, 2003), what is your synopsis of this situation today?
When I started out, Entrepreneurship Education was confined to business schools and to teaching students to launch a new venture. I was frustrated by an education system that stultified rather than developed the requisite attributes and skills to think and behave entrepreneurially. A considerable change in both the content and process of learning was needed. I attempted to present the key arguments and recommendations in my book ‘Entrepreneurship’ (Kirby, 2003). However, I didn’t just want to target business schools, but also attract the attention of policy-makers, nascent entrepreneurs and organisational leaders across all sectors to the requisite development of entrepreneurial culture. In 2005, I hosted the three-day annual conference ‘Internationalising Entrepreneurship Education and Training’ (IntEnt05). This drew delegates from 23 nations, and not just the usual business school network. There was a growing appetite for change in the way entrepreneurial mindsets and behaviours were being shaped, and new demand being placed on universities to contribute to the creation of entrepreneurial cultures.
From today’s vantage point, we’ve come a long way. Many key frustrations held back then are now being worked through. My early research had highlighted that many successful entrepreneurs had not only failed academically but were dyslexic or had ADHD, and indicated a right brain learning preference. Consequently, I wanted to move the emphasis in education away from note-taking and passive learning to questioning and action or experiential learning, developing right as well as left-brain thinking. Today, I am happy that more educational institutions are embracing more creative learning pedagogy and creating environments that help students develop innovative solutions to the problems facing contemporary society. In fact, since returning to the UK, from a decade working in Egypt, I am delighted to see the gains made in Entrepreneurship Education, and not just in Wales or solely in business schools.
So, reflecting on your career to date, is there an experience or critical incident which shaped your ‘entrepreneurial education’ life journey?
The early 1980s at the University of Wales set the foundation. At the time, university teaching was very traditional. There was a backdrop of high graduate unemployment and an economic policy focused on foreign direct investment rather than indigenous small business development. I met with considerable opposition when I offered extra-curricular enterprise programmes to women, graduates and small businesses. I recall at that time, during a TV programme I participated in, the presenter, a leading management academic, made the point that there was no word in Welsh for an entrepreneur. Sadly, many colleagues and peers were critical of my work, also. One told me it was trivial, peripheral and gimmicky. That just made me more determined to succeed.
I was further inspired to continue by Professor Charles Handy, CBE, formerly Professor of Management at London Business School. Professor Handy was, and remains, a highly original, stimulating thinker, and was responsible, as President, for the “Education for Capability” Programme of the Royal Society of Arts. My “Graduate Enterprise in Wales” programme was recognised here for its success in developing the personal competence and confidence of its participants, and turning their academic knowledge into new products and businesses.
Possibly the critical incident that exploded my entrepreneurial career came when I was working at the University of Durham. Prime Minister Thatcher’s new university policy had slashed budgets and introduced a national programme entitled “Enterprise in Higher Education”. The plan was to encourage universities to develop the enterprise skills and competences of their students irrespective of discipline. Universities had to bid for funding. I had responsibility for this programme at Durham, and also helped promote the initiative to other UK universities.
Professor Kirby, can you tell me more about your entrepreneurial activities in Egypt?
In 2007 I left for Egypt for three years to help set up The British University, essentially a new social enterprise. I would stay for over ten years. We introduced a degree specialism in Entrepreneurship, the first in the country, and embarked on a programme of research that included introducing Egypt to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor project. Entrepreneurship is now a high priority for Egypt and some of our early students are leading the field there. At least two are university lecturers in entrepreneurship, one in the UK, several are engaged in Entrepreneurship PhDs, and one has even opened a business in the UK.
Did time spent in Egypt change your thinking in any way?
Yes, I was very much inspired by the late Professor Ibrahim Abouleish, a very humble Egyptian Social Entrepreneur. The founder of SEKEM, a social enterprise that introduced organic foods and biodynamic agriculture to Egypt, he turned 70 acres of desert into a thriving agricultural community, complete with schools, a college and a university. As a result of his vision and entrepreneurial determination to succeed, some 2000 people are in employment; 684 acres of the desert now has agricultural use; there is a 90% reduction in artificial fertilisers and pesticides; and a 30% increase in the production of Egyptian cotton. In 2003 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, the Alternative Nobel Prize, and in 2004, the Schwab Foundation’s Outstanding Social Entrepreneur Award. Professor Abouleish introduced me to a new, more holistic way of doing business. I have recently written an article entitled “Harmonious Entrepreneurship”. It has yet to be published. It is in line with the thinking of HRH The Prince of Wales in his 2010 book “Harmony: A New Way of Looking at our World”.
Are you aware that there is a Harmony Institute and Project at the University of Wales Trinity St David’s (UWTSD), and the Prince of Wales is its Patron?
Yes, and coincidentally I developed my ideas on Entrepreneurship Education in Wales, the home of UWTSD. Some forty or more years later, my ideas and thinking are very much in line with the University’s present-day sustainability research and teaching.
What entrepreneurship education issues do you perceive to require urgent address today?
Creating entrepreneurial mindsets and culture within institutions. My initial research had investigated the characteristics of the entrepreneur and whether these can be developed. I concluded that we are all enterprising at birth, but our families, the education system, the employment system and society encourage the majority of us to conform. Many successful entrepreneurs, in my opinion, have been failed by the education system, as they are “square pegs in round holes”. I believe the role of EE is to reactivate the innate enterprise in us all. I would like every undergraduate studying in a UK university, irrespective of discipline, to have the opportunity to develop his or her enterprise skills and competences.
Subsequently, my more recent research focuses on the Entrepreneurial University and University Knowledge/Technology Transfer. I believe that you cannot expect students to be entrepreneurial if the institutions in which they are being educated are not. Universities need entrepreneurial leadership that recognises the importance of developing entrepreneurial mindsets and behaviour and incorporates them into the institution’s mission and strategic objectives. There is also a challenge in changing the mindset of the staff, many of whom remain opposed to the concept, and do not see the need for a “Third Mission” to complement the two traditional missions of Teaching and Research. My most recent research has focused on the challenges faced by universities on an entrepreneurial journey and how these challenges may be overcome. I also believe academics need to be more innovative with their pedagogy, creating environments where students are not afraid to question, challenge, experiment and make mistakes. They, the academics, need to be part of the learning community and to act as facilitators of learning, helping break the dependency culture.
What, if anything, has the COVID-19 context illuminated about the importance or utility of EE?
COVID-19 has demonstrated the leading role that universities can play and illuminated the need for educated young people who can cope with uncertainty and find innovative solutions to contemporary problems. I would like every university in the country to be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Engaged Universities. This is not because I am a member of the Council, but because I believe that in the modern knowledge economy universities are the catalyst for economic and social development. If EE is to be successful, our universities themselves need to be entrepreneurial. In fact, I have just written a blog that suggests that the role that universities have played during the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the sort of entrepreneurial contribution they can make. Hopefully, this will help overcome some of the resistance to the concept and the changes that are needed.
If you were to select your top three written contributions to EE research, what would they be, and why?
I would cite my Entrepreneurship book back in 2003, which shifted the emphasis in Entrepreneurship Education away from simply new venture creation and functional business competences. My book chapter “Changing the Entrepreneurship Education Paradigm” in Fayolle’s 2007 “Handbook of Research in Entrepreneurship Education” introduced the need to develop right as well as left-brain thinking skills to create entrepreneurs, and proposed changing the place of learning from the classroom to the incubator. My 2006 article on “Creating Entrepreneurial Universities in the UK: Applying entrepreneurial theory to practice” explored the concept of the Entrepreneurial University, using the University of Surrey as a case example. It applied entrepreneurship theory to determine how universities need to change to become more entrepreneurial.
You once made a comment about not being conditioned by what has gone before, or being concerned about top ranked journal publication. What’s your thinking behind this statement?
I want my research to be innovative and to bring about change and improvement. I want it to be read and understood by scholars and practitioners, not just academics. When I was a doctoral student I came across a quotation that said “The answer may be yes or no, but it sounds much better if spoken with a slight but perceptible Oxbridge accent and couched in mathematical terms”. I do not know the source, but I have tried, steadfastly, to avoid doing this throughout my career.
Which would you identify as your most pivotal projects, why are they significant?
I’m proud of my innovative teaching programmes, but I shortlist three projects.
One, collaborating in the 1990s with the late Professor Jose Veciana of The Autonomous University of Barcelona, and Professor Bengt Johannisson then of Vaxjo University in Sweden to establish a European Doctoral Programme in Entrepreneurship. This programme intended to encourage and train young academics in the methods of both research and teaching in Entrepreneurship. Many of the participants are now well established entrepreneurship educators and researchers.
Two, setting up the first SETsquared Incubation Centre on the Research Park at the University of Surrey in 2002. For the past three years SETsquared, based at the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey, has been the world’s number one university incubator.
And three, helping launch The British University in Egypt and introducing the country’s first Entrepreneurship degree specialism.
You have certainly contributed magnificently to the EE landscape, which is vibrant today! Professor Kirby, looking back, what would be the top piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
I had always believed that “actions speak louder than words” and grew up in an era when the professions, including universities, did not advertise. That has changed. The top piece of advice I would give a younger me is ‘if you believe you have something worth doing then say it, don’t just do it’.
Given the power of your questioning, what question would you like to go viral in 2020?
‘How can entrepreneurship save the planet?’
Thank you! Yes, a powerful way to end our conversation today, Professor Kirby. It’s been a privilege to share your reflections, experiences and practices. I am very much looking forward to your new contribution, ‘Harmonious Entrepreneurship’.
On a final note, I do believe we can no longer rely upon ‘they’. Whether ‘they’ are the wealthy nations of the world, the State, multi-national firms, our communities, or even our own families. We have to take ownership and responsibility for our own destinies, for making the world a better place for both ourselves and society. I believe this is why an entrepreneurial mindset is so important.
Kirby, D. A. (2003) ‘Entrepreneurship‘, London: McGraw-Hill Education.
Kirby, D.A. (2004) ‘Entrepreneurship education: can business schools meet the challenge?’, Education + Training, 46(8/9), pp. 510-519.
Kirby, D.A. (2006) ‘Creating Entrepreneurial Universities in the UK: Applying Entrepreneurship Theory to Practice’, The Journal of Technology Transfer, Springer, 31(5), pp. 599-603.
Kirby, D. A. (2007) ‘Changing the Entrepreneurship Education Paradigm’, in Fayolle, A. (ed.) Handbook of Research in Entrepreneurship Education, Volume 1, A general perspective. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.
Kirby, D.A. & Honeywood, D. (2007)’ Graduate Entrepreneurship, Attention Deficiency and Hyperactivity Disorder and the Creation of Young Entrepreneurs: is there a need to rethink?’, The International Journal of Entrepreneurship Education, 5(1), pp.79-92.
Kirby, D.A. & Ibrahim, N. (2016) ‘Entrepreneurial universities in Egypt: Opportunities and Challenges’. In Rizk, N. & Azzazy, H. (ed.) Entrepreneurship + Innovation in Egypt.
Cairo, New York: The American University in Cairo Press.
Kirby, D.A. (2018) ‘Entrepreneurship Education: The Need for a Higher Education Revolution in the Arab World’. In Fardoun, H.M, Downing, K.J. & Mok, M. (ed.) The Future of Higher Education in the Middle East and Africa. Cham: Springer.
Kirby, D.A. & El Hadidi, H. (2019) ‘University Technology Transfer efficiency in a factor-driven economy: the need for a coherent policy in Egypt’, The Journal of Technology Transfer, 44(5), pp. 1367-1395. First online 29 May, 2019.
ACEEU Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Engaged Universities https://www.aceeu.org/
The British University in Egypt https://www.bue.edu.eg/
The Harmony Institute (UWTSD) https://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/harmony-institute/
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