Soapbox

February 18, 2013 12:00 am

Education must produce entrepreneurs

Private and public money is being provided at all levels of UK education, but the right questions are not being asked about return on investment.

With MBAs costing as much as £68,000, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the government investing up to £7.5bn in the further education system each year, there are justifiable concerns over value for money.

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Is education – be it the development of experienced managers on an MBA course, or the skills training of teenagers in a further education college – doing the job it needs to for British businesses? That is the question that chief executives, government and individuals need to be asking themselves.

My answer is that education is not doing a good enough job. Nor has any level of the system properly appreciated the fundamental changes that business and employment are undergoing, despite the pioneering work of organisations such as the Gazelle Colleges Group.

The UK education system has not yet caught up with the changed reality of how jobs are created, in both the domestic and global marketplaces. According to Carl Schramm, former president and chief executive of the Kauffman Foundation, a private philanthropic organisation devoted to entrepreneurship and education, big business has not created one net job in the US during the past 40 years – not one.

It is no different in the UK, or indeed anywhere in the world. Global enterprises are focused on making themselves more competitive at all costs, and that often means fewer jobs as a result of increased productivity.

It is generally acknowledged that job creation is to be found among the fast-growth small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In fact, entrepreneurship across the world is likely the single most powerful force for social and economic value creation.

Beale cartoon

This is a reality that needs to be reflected across education, from how the UK teaches its young people right through to the structure of the courses its universities and business schools offer to skilled managers.

All levels of education in the UK must come to recognise the most essential facet of entrepreneurship: it is a practice, like that of law and medicine, that can be codified, developed and taught.

Even the UK’s many renowned business schools are failing to demonstrate an understanding of the fundamental importance of entrepreneurship as an applicable practice. Academic, knowledge-heavy MBA courses are churning out students with enhanced managerial skills, but not the thirst for opportunities great and small that characterises the entrepreneur.

American business schools have recognised this reality, yet in much of the UK it remains a controversial notion.

Embracing entrepreneurship in the heart of its education system from beginning to end is quite likely the most important step the UK can take to help reverse the trends of rising youth unemployment and social dislocation.

An entrepreneurial education shakes students out of a world of passive learning into one where they must stand on their own feet as decision makers. The enterprising mindset is not some abstract, genetic characteristic, but rather the outcome of an education that focuses squarely on thinking and acting entrepreneurially.

This is as true for an MBA postgraduate as it is for a teenager studying car mechanics at a further education college. Both need the acquisitive, self-starting mentality that only a focused entrepreneurial education can provide. However, for all the divergence in skillsets, both are essentially being prepared for a lifetime of reliance on corporate employment. In a brutally competitive global marketplace, and with a jobs crisis simmering even in the fast-growing economies of China and India, this is nothing short of systemic irresponsibility.

What is needed is a system that takes seriously the most vital life skill that students in the UK could acquire: the ability to think and act entrepreneurially. Only by learning that critical set of skills will this generation be able to adapt to the volatile and uncertain economic future it faces.

At its core, thinking and acting entrepreneurially is about a cycle of act-learn-build. You take a step, learn from that – whether it’s good news or bad – and build on that learning to take the next step. Now it is time for UK educators to take that first step, and embrace entrepreneurial principles on a systemic basis, so they can practise what they preach.

The resources available to education in the UK must be spent with the focused intention of creating a generation of UK citizens who can find and make opportunities to create economic and social value everywhere – whether an employee in a large organisation, a solo practitioner in his or her own business, or the next creator of a high-impact growth enterprise. Then you might start hearing the right answers about return on investment.

Len Schlesinger is president of Babson College and sits on the board of directors for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE).

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