Nurturing employability at British universities – entrepreneurship education as a vehicle

By Carolin Decker-Lange (The Open University) and Knut Lange (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Since the 1980s, British universities have been under increasing scrutiny, accompanied by changes in regulation, funding, governmental surveillance and performance appraisal in research and teaching. As a result, universities operate in a ‘quasi-market’. On the one hand, they must compete with other universities to attract students and generate income to ensure financial sustainability; on the other hand, they are expected to widen the access to higher education and nurture social mobility (Bowl, 2018; Bowl and Hughes, 2016). This explains universities’ vital role in promoting graduate employability, defined as ‘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, 2022). However, our knowledge about what universities do to nurture employability is limited.

Our study

Addressing this gap, we engaged with scholarship of teaching and learning entrepreneurship (SoTLE) (Neck and Corbett, 2018). We conceptualised university-based entrepreneurship education as one potential driver of employability. The link between entrepreneurship education and employability is not apparent, especially if the purpose of entrepreneurship education is narrowly defined as new venture creation. However, students exposed to entrepreneurship education develop skills that are useful in diverse professional contexts (von Graevenitz et al., 2010). Technological advancements and the increasing digitalisation of operations provide opportunities for start-up entrepreneurship; they also affect the availability and content of jobs and require new forms of work and mobility across established organisations and industries (Kornelakis and Petrakaki, 2020; Mikelatou and Arvanitis, 2018).

From September 2020 to March 2021, we conducted online interviews with 45 experts in employability and/or entrepreneurship education across the four nations, including academics and educators, academic-related staff, professional services, and internal consultancy. We also included business owners and experts in HEI consultancy. The interviewees and their respective employers were accorded pseudonyms for confidentiality reasons. We analysed the anonymised interview transcripts to identify approaches to fostering employability involving entrepreneurship education. What did we find?

Entrepreneurship in universities’ employability strategy

Entrepreneurship is “on some universities’ agendas” [Eve, academic subject leader] though to different degrees. At some universities, entrepreneurship is fully integrated into the employability strategy. Others separate entrepreneurship and employability strategies. Whether entrepreneurship is embedded in the employability strategy can be driven by, for instance, sectors and students’ aspirations. The creative and cultural sector is a case in point. Students who aim to work in this sector tend to become freelancers and should thus prepare for self-employment or starting their own venture.

A reason for a lack of embeddedness can be that employability teams and entrepreneurship teams work in different parts of the university. Entrepreneurship is often concentrated in the business school, and collaboration with careers services or other central services is not actively encouraged by university leaders:

“(…) they just don’t talk to each other. They may collaborate, but often that’s not actively managed and encouraged. They’re just living different spaces and places.” [Albert, former senior university leader]

Employability in the curriculum

Employability can be added to the curriculum, for example, by fostering employability skills in modules. Universities can also integrate employability on the programme level by aligning dedicated activities with the subject area:

“(…) maybe even in the assessments and in the actual teaching itself, we’ll incorporate employability into the subject, rather than just having it as a stand-alone.” [Matthew, Professor in Entrepreneurship]

Some interviewees point out that entrepreneurship modules are beneficial in nurturing employability if entrepreneurship is understood broadly:

“(…) there may be students on that (module) that have never really thought about entrepreneurship before, and actually their career path is your bigger companies etc. etc. So we do make sure that we bring in that entrepreneurial thinking, and we bring in intrapreneurship with an ‘i’ really as well. So that we’re showing that what they’re learning here isn’t just something that if they want to start a business, but it’s something they can use in their management career going forward.” [Finn, Senior Lecturer in Management]

Some universities must embed employability in their curriculum. For instance, universities with a vocational focus integrate employability in all their programmes in terms of work-based learning or placements. For universities providing online, remote learning, the curriculum is the best place to foster employability, because only a relatively small number of students would use co- or extra-curricular activities on campus.

Taking or making a job

Extra-curricular entrepreneurship events, such as student competitions, are often unexpected opportunities for employers to get in touch with promising students and offer them graduate jobs:

“The enterprise team, they do this start up school. (…), it was a bit like Dragon’s Den. The students came up with their own business idea and they did the research, they went through all the motions of starting the business in teams. (…). And then at the end of it they were pitching their ideas to a panel and an audience as well. And people in local companies and organisations that could feedback to them. And potentially cherry pick employees.” [Genevieve, Work-Based Learning Coordinator]

Many if not most universities offer central employability and entrepreneurship services. These services are not always provided by separate organisational units. They can also be offered by combined enterprise and employability teams, reflecting the view that employability encompasses activities associated with both taking and making a job.

Conclusion

Our findings clarify that entrepreneurship education prepares students for different pathways and nurtures the development of versatile skills that can be applied in various contexts. Employability does not necessarily involve that graduates are recruited by large companies with famous employer brands. In some fields, such as the creative and cultural sector, it is crucial that students are prepared for freelancing or self-employment.

References

Bowl, M. (2018). Differentiation, distinction and equality – or diversity? The language of the marketised university: an England, New Zealand comparison. Studies in Higher Education, 43(4), 671-688.

Bowl, M., and Hughes, J. (2016). Fair access and fee setting in English universities: What do institutional statements suggest about university strategies in a stratified quasi-market? Studies in Higher Education, 41(2), 269-287.

Kornelakis, A., and Petrakaki, D. (2020). Embedding employability skills in UK higher education: Between digitalization and marketization. Industry and Higher Education, 34(5), 290-297.

Mikelatou, A., and Arvanitis, E. (2018). Social inclusion and active citizenship under the prism of neoliberalism: A critical analysis of the European Union’s discourse of lifelong learning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 50(5), 499-509.

Neck, H.M., and Corbett, A.C. (2018). The scholarship of teaching and learning entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship Education and Pedagogy, 1(1), 8-41.

Office for Students (2022). Employability. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/access-and-participation-glossary/ (accessed on 2nd January 2022).

von Graevenitz, G., Harhoff, D., and Weber, R. (2010). The effects of entrepreneurship education. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 76(1), 90-112.

Carolin Decker-Lange is a Senior Lecturer in Management at The Open University Business School and Deputy Director (Business) of SCiLAB. Her research interests include organisational development and change, interorganisational relationships, and entrepreneurship. She has been involved in several scholarship projects and has chaired the production of the MBA elective BB851 Entrepreneurship in Context. 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.

Knut Lange is a Senior Lecturer in International Business at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research interests include comparative country studies, institutional theory, family businesses, emerging markets, entrepreneurial education, and innovation. He is an experienced educator in the fields of international business and entrepreneurship. He enjoys designing new teaching materials that help students establish a connection between recent research and current issues in international business and policy.

This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

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