Are universities boosting students' entrepreneurial ambitions?

Becoming an entrepreneur is now an increasingly popular career choice for young people, with research suggesting as many as 63 per cent of millennials have aspirations to own their own business. But how helpful are university programmes that claim to educate students in entrepreneurship?

Research from PolicyBee suggests that generally, UK universities aren’t doing enough to encourage students to consider self-employment. 62 per cent of graduates said that freelancing or self-employment was not discussed at their university at all and a further 19 per cent said that it was not discussed enough. It’s the top universities that seem to fare worst, with just 11 per cent of Russell Group graduates saying that their university discussed entrepreneurship as a career option.

"The university careers support available to me was basic, and mainly focussed on getting an internship in my third year," Will Calderbank, founder of Distorted Logic, said. "In my opinion, university careers departments need to think a little less about the one-size-fits-all approach, and help students and graduates consider all the options out there."

As for programmes specifically focused on entrepreneurship, they don’t always offer much more help.

"We set up a t-shirt design business, however it didn’t quite last the year," Tom Bourlet, who is now a senior digital marketing executive at The Stag Company, said of his experience of a university entrepreneurship programme. "There wasn’t much guidance as to what avenues to take or how to take the business to the next level.

"We chose this business as we couldn’t think what avenue to go down and my friend was particularly keen on design, but it wasn’t really a strong point for us and I felt it was a decision chosen out of lack of options, rather than a strategically planned out path to success. While we were informed about what a business needs and what we were required to do, we weren’t offered any advice on what type of business we should be considering, nor were our ideas critiqued."

But Tom doesn’t view the experience as a waste of time, he says that he "never went in believe this was going to be a huge business," viewing it instead as a learning opportunity. And he still has entrepreneurial aspirations: "I’m currently considering two entrepreneurship opportunities. I definitely have a lust for being the best I can be and to run my own business."

Not everyone has this kind of experience with entrepreneur programmes though, and Scott Rosenberg, founder of Javoo – an app to help people living with and affected by Alzheimer’s disease – says that the Masters degree he completed in entrepreneurship, innovation and management at the University of Nottingham was really helpful.

"The programme made me feel very confident in making the decision to launch Javoo, which in some respects is the most difficult part," he says. "In terms of the practical help it offered, the programme gave Javoo some great publicity at the early stages of launch. However they don’t hold your hand during the process – and nor should they. Whilst they supported me on my journey, I also gained a lot of my own learnings, which will be invaluable for the future. Overall, the confidence they instilled in me was priceless."

Tai Alegbe of wine start-up Baacco had a similar experience with the UKTI Sirius programme. "The programme offered us the opportunity to realise an idea I had pondered for some time," he says. "The guidance we were provided with challenged our approach to the extent that it led us to pursue an idea that looked quite different from our original concept. Through validated learning and examining data we set out to build a business that more closely met our users’ needs."

University entrepreneurship programmes can also help new start-ups to deal with some of the practicalities around setting up. For example, online letting agent Makeurmove was able to rent low cost office space through Manchester Metropolitan University’s incubator Innospace. "Without this low cost office space and support network it would have been much more difficult starting up," Asa Bentley, managing director, says.

So would these entrepreneurs recommend other aspiring entrepreneurs get involved in university programmes? Generally, yes, although with a few caveats.

"I’d say it’s about you and what you feel is right," Asa says. "It does give you time to mature and get more of an understanding of who you are. You do get exposed to lots of learning and a degree of discipline. The key is getting really stuck into the entrepreneurship activities to get real world experience."

Tom adds: "Carefully consider not what business would be easy or could make you some quick money, but which could offer the greatest education and doesn’t exist in the current market."

However, some think that more should be done to help young people to start businesses. Andrew Halliday got his first taste of running a start-up while at university and took part in the FLUX business competition, which he says helped with his pitching skills and has helped him build Andrew Halliday SEO. But he thinks that entrepreneurship should be taught earlier in life. "You don’t wake up one day when you’re 18 or 19 and go, ‘I am going to be an entrepreneur.’ It’s kind of born in you, or definitely how you are raised."


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