By Carolin Decker-Lange
Many people think that the purpose of entrepreneurship education at universities is to help students to start their own ventures. This is not fully in line with the QAA, the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, which defines entrepreneurship education as “the application of enterprise behaviours, attributes and competencies into the creation of cultural, social or economic value. This can, but does not exclusively, lead to venture creation” (QAA, 2018, p. 7). Indeed, knowledge and skills in entrepreneurship can also enhance students’ employability (Gibb, 1996). However, the relationship between entrepreneurship education and employability is not well understood (Ustav & Venesaar, 2018).
Addressing this gap, my colleagues Knut Lange (Royal Holloway, University of London), Andreas Walmsley (Coventry University) and I started a cross-university scholarship project. We think that there are at least three reasons why we should know more about the potential link between entrepreneurship education and employability.
The number of universities offering entrepreneurship education has been rapidly increasing for some decades (Kuratko & Morris, 2018). Thereby, the ‘aims of entrepreneurship education have been extending beyond business creation and management skills to students’ preparation for work and life. Graduates’ employability and success are of concern to universities and are often measured as indicators of educational value’ (Ustav & Venesaar, 2018, p. 674).
Findings from a previously completed scholarship project support this view (Decker-Lange et al., 2020). One of our research participants reported that students who had completed an entrepreneurship programme at their university and received funding for starting their own ventures eventually opted against being start-up entrepreneurs. Instead, they pursued a career in established organisations after graduation. For employers these students were attractive because of their participation in this programme and offered them a job. Possibly, enterprising students are better equipped to cope with uncertainty and rapid changes in economy and society than students who have not been exposed to entrepreneurship education (Rae, 2007).
According to the Office for Students, employability ‘refers to the skills and competencies that a student gains as they progress throughout their higher education programme to ultimately enhance their chances of finding meaningful and sustained employment’ (Office for Students, 2021). In our current scholarship work, we asked experts across British universities, among them researchers, enterprise educators, entrepreneurs-in-residence, enterprise officers, employability consultants and careers advisors, to elaborate on, first, their understanding of employability and, second, typical entrepreneurial attributes. Our initial findings reveal considerable overlaps. For instance, creativity, innovation, passion, perseverance, resilience, leadership, planning and problem-solving skills, collaboration and communication skills were aspects that our interviewees often associated with both aspects.
In a seminal article, Rae criticises a narrow focus on skills development because a graduate ‘is not simply the carrier of a set of “skills, knowledge and personal attributes”’ (2007, p. 607). This criticism paves the way for broadening the purpose of entrepreneurship education. It is not solely about equipping students with the skills necessary for new venture creation, but also about preparing them, for example, for the management of small firms (Gibb, 1996) or family business succession and transgenerational entrepreneurship (Jaskiewicz et al., 2015). The findings from our on-going scholarship work support this view. Some interviewees also pointed to a potential time lag between the exposure to entrepreneurship education and the start of a new venture, because entrepreneurship can be a career option that is considered many years after graduation. In short, entrepreneurship education nurtures ‘enterprising individuals’ (Ustav & Venessar, 2018, p. 674) who behave effectively in diverse contexts.
Drawing on online interviews with experts across British universities, we aim to shed new light on the potential link between entrepreneurship education and employability and the contextual factors shaping it. This reflects the insight that ‘context clearly plays an important role in what is possible, achievable and appropriate’ (Neergaard et al., 2020, p. 820). In our scholarship work, we go beyond the mere identification of skills. Instead, we develop a framework combining graduate identity (Holmes, 2001), entrepreneurial identity (Hytti, 2005) and entrepreneurship education ecosystems (Brush, 2014). We also aim to stimulate the exchange of knowledge within and across universities and specify initiatives in entrepreneurship education that are especially useful in nurturing employability.
This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or The Open University.
Carolin Decker-Lange is a Senior Lecturer in Management at The Open University Business School. Her research interests include organisational development and change, interorganisational relationships, and entrepreneurship. She has been involved in several scholarship projects on two undergraduate modules in the Enterprise and Innovation pathway – B205 and B327.
She has chaired the production of the new MBA elective BB851 Entrepreneurship in Context which is currently in its first presentation. In her scholarship work Carolin aims to generate insights for the design of new materials that stimulate entrepreneurial thinking and help students to apply this in diverse professional contexts.