Observations on innovation and entrepreneurship education in UK universities

By Sun Weiye

From late November to early December, the China-Britain Business Council arranged for me to tour some British universities to learn about their innovation and entrepreneurship education (IEE) programmes. During the trip, our delegation visited seven universities as well as the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education; we also attended talks by representatives of three further universities and Enterprise Educators UK. In the course of my visit, I gained a preliminary understanding of IEE in British universities and observed the following key features.

IEE is very widespread. It is found in academic institutions of all kinds. From world-leading seats of learning such as Cambridge University to the local Peterborough College, diverse IEE programmes have been established reflecting the features of each institution. Universities offer a large range of courses to students of all levels. For example, Coventry University has established 12 innovation- and entrepreneurship-related classes which are open to all students, as well as an undergraduate degree in Entrepreneurship and a master’s degree in Global Entrepreneurship. Cambridge offers 13 courses at undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD level. Coventry has an annual intake of around 4,500 students; by 2015, 13,000 had registered for innovation and entrepreneurship courses.

There is a multi-tiered model for fostering entrepreneurial talent. Entrepreneurship courses in the UK are defined in two slightly different but closely related ways: one is theoretical and the other practical. The former seeks to foster and develop students’ entrepreneurial awareness, mindset and skills, encouraging them to come up with creative ideas and to be able to put them into practice. The latter concentrates on teaching students how to approach situations entrepreneurs would meet in practice to improve their problem-solving capacity. The vast majority of UK universities have adopted this mentality, and they strive to combine the theoretical and practical strands to produce a multi-tiered model for fostering entrepreneurial talent. Examples include Teesside University’s four-step model which comprises developing entrepreneurial behaviour, improving entrepreneurial skills, a “cocoon” and an incubator; and Coventry University’s three-step model covering entrepreneurship education, an incubator, and a technology park for practical work.

IEE is combined with professional training. British universities generally try to incorporate IEE in professional training courses to help students apply their knowledge and research results in practice, and to commercialise their ideas through entrepreneurial activities. Bath Spa University, for example, has built IEE into its Creative Arts course, giving students a foundation in performance, film and design. Enterprise Educators UK is currently promoting an IT Entrepreneurship Education programme in universities. Based on innovation in computer science, modern communications technology and internet technology, its aim is to foster innovation in the markets of today and the future by combining IT closely with entrepreneurship.

IEE is linked to regional economic transformation and development. The UK places special emphasis on the usefulness of IEE. This is shown not only in the linking of courses with fieldwork; some universities also tailor their field activities to innovation in local industries, thereby directly participating in transforming and developing local economies. In recent years, tech and new-media start-up groups have sprung up in an old suburb of East London, forming a new hi-tech industry park known as TechCity. University College London has played an important role as a catalyst in this process. While developing a range of IEE initiatives including UCL Advances, the Students Venture programme and a master’s degree in Technology Entrepreneurship, the university has also input its own professional training courses and technological resources to take an active role in the development of the park.

My overall impression of the visit was that IEE is already widespread in the UK; the system is getting better and better, and showing signs of even further improvement in its design. Not only does it give students rich experience of innovation and entrepreneurship during their studies, it also provides them with the solid foundation of having other options besides employment. This is something Chinese universities could really learn from. It is apparent from the practical experience of IEE in British universities that integrating resources and offering set IEE courses to contemporary students should be an integral, important component of their talent training programmes.

Furthermore, IEE requires inter-disciplinary cooperation and needs to be incorporated in professional training. Entrepreneurship education in universities should not merely seek to impart knowledge about starting a business, but ought to nurture students’ entrepreneurial spirit and all-round capability. To this end, Chinese universities should provide current students with more practical opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. And finally, linking IEE to the development of innovation in Chinese industry, thereby promoting structural change and innovation in regional economies, ought to be the future direction of IEE in Chinese universities.

The author is a former associate professor at Tianjin University of Technology.

For further information, please contact CBBC: jane.zhang@cbbc.org.cn

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