SIEF Webinar No. 3: Creating entrepreneurial universities: the new frontier

With generous support from the OECD and St Aidan’s College at Durham University the Societal Innovation and Enterprise Forum (SIEF) webinar series turned its focus to the ability of universities to become more entrepreneurial in order to respond to, cope with, and indeed potentially benefit from significant change, volatility and uncertainty.

This third webinar was moderated by Professor Andrew Atherton, Global Director of Transnational Education, Navitas. The international panel included:

  • Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, President and Chief Executive, New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE), UK
  • Dr Todd Davey, Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship, Institut Mines-Télécom Business School, France, and Director at the University-Industry Innovation Network (UIIN)
  • Professor Sunčica Oberman Peterka, Vice Dean for Student Affairs and Teaching, and Professor, Faculty of Economics and Business, J.J. Strossmayer, University of Osijek, Croatia
  • Professor Emeritus Andy Penaluna, University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, UK, and Board Member, National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE)

Entrepreneurship can make the world a better place
Amongst other engagements with the OECD Allan served as policy advisor to the OECD/ UNIDO Forum on Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development. Dr Raffaele Trapasso, Team Leader at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Cities and Regions delivered the opening remarks, celebrating Professor Allan Gibb’s legacy and the ability of entrepreneurship to transform ideas into sustainable innovation for a better world. He said: “Professor Allan Gibb’s vision for entrepreneurship education has inspired national policies, and international initiatives, promoting entrepreneurship education and entrepreneurial mindsets, in higher education”.

SIEF are also pleased to have the support of the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE) in this webinar series. Allan Gibb’s first published paper about the concept of the Entrepreneurial University was published by NCGE (which is now called NCEE) in 2005. Allan collaborated with colleagues Paul Hannon and Ian Robertson from NCEE and Gay Haskins and Pegram Harrison from the University of Oxford to develop the concept for, and then launch the Entrepreneurial University Leadership Programme in 2010, which still runs today under the leadership of NCEE.

Universities as ever-evolving entrepreneurial entities
The first round of discussion reflected on the ability of universities to stimulate and sponsor entrepreneurial behaviour. Dr Todd Davey highlighted some inertia to change across this sector. Informed by the insight from many professionals and leaders across industry and government, gathered together in the 2018 ‘Future of Universities Thoughtbook’, he made clear universities have no choice but to embrace uncertainty for survival. Competitive threats from the likes of global MOOCs have been a shot across the bow, but the next may not miss, he predicts. Better for universities to self-regulate, become more proactive in their wider communities and evolve now. It is not that universities are incapable of incorporating entrepreneurial principles, adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, and facilitating proactive and productive entrepreneurial activity that do not compromise education and research values. There are many excellent examples to draw upon, such as the University of Twente (Netherlands), University of Waterloo (Canada), and Coventry University (UK), but they remain the exception rather than the norm.

Professor Sunčica Oberman Peterka concurred the debate is no longer about whether universities need to be entrepreneurial or not. Operating in complex, ambiguous and uncertain times, they have no choice but to be proactive in their innovative and problem-solving. Taking responsibility, more so than accountability, and accepting a certain amount of risk is crucial. Entrepreneurship is neither about the commercialisation of university nor the harming of research and teaching.

Perhaps, added Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, we should accept education and knowledge creation is by nature, entrepreneurial and enterprising. If we consider generating ideas, taking advantage of opportunities, and making things happen, it is fair to say many universities are indeed entrepreneurial. It could be more purposeful to construct the discussion around whether universities can evolve into entities that engage meaningfully with all their stakeholders, maintain a focus on the ever-evolving needs of society, and ensure authentic educational provision. The issue is that current institutional structures are not flexible and agile enough to support this type of reinvention.

Sunčica was explicit in her view the management of the university is responsible for creating and nurturing the entrepreneurial culture, be that in a public or private institution. Entrepreneurship challenges the established practice and change is difficult for most people. It is a positive sign many individuals within these environments have started entrepreneurial initiatives, sowing seeds of change, with a promise of more to come.

The disorder brought with the current pandemic has sped up some of the change processes, added Todd. Still, the design and adoption of fresh incentives remain essential, to help encourage appropriate accountability and reduce bureaucracy, opening up more flexibility and opportunity for staff to apply themselves in a more entrepreneurial way. And in place of the small pots of funding against vague engagement targets for links with employers, a more focused, favourable national policy for active stakeholder engagement is needed. Furthermore, staff who are not publishing but engaged in excellent entrepreneurial teaching should be rewarded, with a clear career path, irrespective of their ability to get published.

Disablers or constraints on enterprise entrepreneurship
Responding to participants questions on the incompatibility of an entrepreneurial university and a focus on research, Professor Emeritus Andy Penaluna offered the view that the university system places too much emphasis on writing for academic journals; this creates a glass ceiling for many entrepreneurial educators. With a nod to Guy Kawasaki, he noted ‘pursue ability, not just knowledge‘ should be the mantra.

Contributing further to this point, Elena highlighted the tensions and motivations for doing academic research and its link to promotion routes. Inflexible structures and bureaucracy contribute to the lack of agility. On the other hand, Sunčica quoted Allan Gibb and explained ‘an entrepreneurial university would combine excellence in research with a constant eye upon key areas of future needs of society, domestic and international and would build flexible scenarios accordingly’. There is work still to be done on amending promotion criteria at universities when linked to publishing in a journal without connecting the research to solving the problems of society.

Encouraging the ‘pracademic’
Mirroring the QAA guidance for entrepreneurial graduates, Andy suggested the aim should ultimately be the development of agile and adaptable universities, equipped with an enhanced capacity to generate ideas. There should also be space for the ‘pracademics’, academics who are practitioners or run businesses. If a member of staff has an idea, it should not be death by committee. Widescale cultural change and a break from the mould of an institutional model often preoccupied with measurement and status is needed. The entrepreneurial institution instead needs to focus on its sense of purpose, not short-term goals. Universities need to decide whether they are learning institutions or learned institutions. Currently hindered by the current research environment, Andy passionately championed multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research that first and foremost facilitates practical application.

No one-size model but some shared attributes
Todd cautioned about prescriptive descriptions of a model entrepreneurial university. Instead, we should recognise some institutional elements can be entrepreneurial, and, or, management may be embracing entrepreneurship. Even the best examples are imperfect models. It would be healthier to embrace diversity when defining ‘an entrepreneurial university’. His own key ingredients include: (a) both a top-down and a bottom-up approach; (b) clear allocation of resources to support entrepreneurial action; (c) an evolved recruitment and incentive scheme that rewards entrepreneurial experience and behaviours; and (d) the embedding of entrepreneurial mindsets. These all flow through to various forms of entrepreneurial activity, from student start-ups and academic spinouts to entrepreneurial academics who collaborate with industry or societal groups. Referencing Allan’s work, he also pointed to the importance of a university’s regional or wider stakeholder support role, e.g. supporting local SMEs and industry leaders.

Sunčica concurred with the view that there are many manifestations of entrepreneurial behaviour in universities, and various routes to becoming entrepreneurial. But she also emphasised the need for overarching institutional support for all staff with regards to facilitating entrepreneurship and engagement with wider stakeholders as necessary.

Kindness, Empathy & Authentic Practice
Drawing upon Allan’s research, authentic learning, kindness and empathy are conducive to an entrepreneurial culture, said Elena. A focus on theoretical or research approaches can undermine learning – the authenticity of the learning experience matters, supporting educators with their development.

Andy reinforced this view by referencing the positive inclusion of such approaches in the new Welsh curriculum, which places enterprising contributors at its heart. Actively seeking collaborations outside the university, whether that be with further education (FE) or schools is also important.

Concluding Remarks
Andrew Atherton concluded the session by asking the panellists to select one creation, decision or act to create an entrepreneurial learning university.

Todd concluded that the reduction of institutional barriers whilst facilitating the drivers for entrepreneurial activity is critical. He emphasised prioritising the right incentives at an institutional level as being important for encouraging entrepreneurial endeavour in universities.

Sunčica emphasised the need to reduce bureaucracy, as it demotivates engagement in change. She highlighted the importance of developing an entrepreneurial culture within universities that enables the change needed to achieve this.

Andy and Elena agreed on the importance of the need for more authentic learning as a key part of the student experience, and for evaluation of learner performance to be more authentic and closely connected to the development of competencies needed in industry. This is important for work-ready graduates to be able to apply their learning directly into practice.

Andrew thanked all the panellists and the participants for their active contribution in the breakout rooms. He closed by thanking the SIEF Forum Organising Team for all their hard work: Dinah Bennett, Susan Frenk, Ted Fuller, Yolanda Gibb, Gay Haskins, Keith Herrmann, Colin Jones, Andy Penaluna, Kathryn Penaluna, Jane Rindl, Slavica Singer, Mike Thomas and Marju Unt.


The 4th and final SIEF Webinar in this first series on the topic of ‘Universities as partnership models for driving positive change’ will take place on Friday February 12th, 2021 at 12.00pm UK time. For further details and to enrol, please book direct via Eventbrite at https://bit.ly/2XSkrmK.

The second series of SIEF Webinars will commence in early April 2021, focusing on the broad theme of small business development, from ideation to business growth to enterprise development policies at a national level. More information on dates and themes will be forthcoming.


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