Entrepreneurship must be at the heart of higher education

6 min read

03 November 2015

Entrepreneurs are our new superheroes. They are today’s leading innovators, wealth generators and job creators.

Technology has rewritten the rulebook of commerce, with the potential for businesses to go from bedroom project to multi-billion dollar IPO in a handful of months. 

At the same time, the global financial crisis has sparked a wave of entrepreneurialism globally, and entrepreneurialism that doesn’t simply focus on financial return, but works smart to do good. Born in fire, many graduates had to create jobs in order to get jobs. They’ve had to be creative, realistic, responsible and determined.

And the concept of the “job” itself has changed irrevocably. Businesses and careerists alike hold little regard for the idea of a “job for life” today, with portfolio careers becoming the norm. Resultantly, today’s first-jobbers have little time to “learn the ropes” – firms expect to hire enterprising, savvy and emotionally intelligent graduates from day one on the job.

Where do universities fit into this?

Business acumen and commercial savvy have traditionally been the domain of the business school, within those universities lucky enough to have one. 

I think it’s fair to say that the pace of change in the commercial world hasn’t been matched by the curriculum in many of these institutions, with tired management theory looking increasingly out of touch with the tech-fuelled and creatively driven entrepreneurialism going on outside their doors. 

The gap between the theoretical and the practical has become a chasm in many cases, as MBA applications have fallen around the world.

Is there an out-dated snobbery towards entrepreneurs in our higher education system? These risk-takers are the school-of-life “Del Boys”, we’re surely more concerned with producing ladies and gentlemen for the society of big business, big government, the great arts institutions and the professional disciplines, right? Wrong.

Entrepreneurship at the heart of all courses

Entrepreneurship must be at the heart of every taught course in higher education, including in the arts. 

Universities need to address employability and self-sufficiency – not moving away from skills development or academic integrity – but recognising that without embedding entrepreneurship as a fundamental part of this, we might be setting up our graduates to fail.

From radical social change to cutting-edge research, universities have for centuries been hotbeds of innovation – melting pots of creative, bright and idealistic young people. With the right guidance and support, these should be the perfect conditions for enterprise.

One institution taking this seriously is the Guildhall School – find out how entrepreneurship is becoming a core part of the curriculum on page two.

Some of the best-funded institutions have successful incubators to commercialise research innovations, particularly in the scientific and technology fields. But enterprise can be borne of any discipline. And an entrepreneurial skillset and mindset can prepare any student for success, whether in setting up their own organisation, surviving in a big business or forging a career in the arts. 

In the context of training performers, for instance, it’s not enough to teach people to be great actors and musicians, you have to also give them the skills to root their artistic lives in the communities around them and to manage their careers as a business.

That’s why we’re working to develop creative entrepreneurship as a core dimension of what we can offer the whole community, students, staff and alumni.

We recently launched our Creative Entrepreneurs scheme, aimed at supporting graduates and staff of the school to set up their own businesses and social enterprises as well as develop entrepreneurial skills, and with many workshop sessions also open to Guildhall students. 

The scheme, run in partnership with development and fundraising enterprise Cause4, helps the participants to create, launch and make a success of their businesses – as well as to raise vital seed funding. It includes access to mentoring, coaching, business planning, marketing, sales and funding expertise. Participants also benefit from use of office and creative space for a 12-month period and are introduced to a range of entrepreneurial, community and partnership networks to support business development.

The scheme has incubated over 18 new businesses to date. Successes from the past two years have included Song in the City, a charity that programmes classical concerts around inventive and challenging themes; Drum Works, a music education programme that confronts disengagement within schools, and is currently reaching over 400 young people every week; and Bach to Baby, an innovative and award-winning concert series for babies, tots and their parents to enjoy together.

It is through this kind of entrepreneurial scheme that we plan to ensure that quality of the artistic skills and creative ideas of our graduates are matched with relevant business skills and practical understanding of how to unlock professional potential in the performing arts.

But these lessons are universal, and can be applied in any given context. Higher education has a responsibility both to incubate enterprises and to foster entrepreneurship among our students, if we are to ensure their success when they leave us.

Professor Helena Gaunt is vice principal and director of academic affairs at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.