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Many countries in the west have pinned their hopes on start-ups and family-run enterprises to help kick-start the economy. China is no exception.
Indeed, it was China’s Premier Li Keqiang, who recently pledged more policies to encourage entrepreneurial activity and support start-up business across China. In particular, the premier promised more effective support for student entrepreneurs facing a very difficult employment market in China.
Creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship are considered key to easing the mounting job-search worries of China’s university graduates.
Yet entrepreneurship education remains a relatively new concept and practice, particularly in China’s university sector. Currently, precious few hold academic entrepreneurship titles in China and fewer still have experienced an entrepreneurship education.
The fact that entrepreneurship education in China is a relatively new concept comes as no surprise. The first MBA programme at a mainland Chinese university, Tsinghua, was not launched until 1991 and it was not until the mid-1990s that regular exchange programmes with leading US and European business schools began to emerge.
Furthermore, traditional Chinese culture, still influenced significantly by Confucian values such as “obedience”, “respect for authority” and above all “emotional control”, is not naturally compatible with typical entrepreneurial values. In addition, China’s education system, a product of Confucian values, is also incompatible with the approach needed for effective entrepreneurship education.
So what is the way forward for Chinese universities and business schools and the teaching of entrepreneurship?
Recent research points to the significant impact that good entrepreneurship education can make towards entrepreneurial success and the promotion of an entrepreneurial culture. Hence the plethora of entrepreneurship academics and academic programmes at UK and US universities. A mainstay of many of the more successful entrepreneurship programmes at business schools around the world is the involvement of successful entrepreneurs from various business backgrounds whose business careers provide an invaluable part of any university student’s entrepreneurship education.
Contrary to popular myth China’s economic miracle has not been driven solely by state capitalism and the might of China’s mega-sized, state-owned enterprises. Entrepreneurs and their entrepreneurial flair have also contributed significantly to China’s spectacular economic transformation since the start of China’s Open Door policy in the late 1970s. Prime examples of the most successful entrepreneurs are Jack Ma (Alibaba), Ma Huateng (Tencent), Robin Li (Baidu), and Lei Jun (Xiaomi smartphones). However, none of these individuals appear to feature in the promotion and implementation of Chinese universities’ emerging entrepreneurship programmes.
China’s business schools need to adopt the tactics of their western counterparts and have entrepreneurs in residence and start-up laboratories so that students can experience at first hand lessons in entrepreneurship.
Although China may have arrived late to the table when it comes to entrepreneurship education, it may provide the country with a key advantage. In more developed nations entrepreneurship education is often still very much a “bolt on” to existing business and management courses.
In China, where entrepreneurship education is still very much in its infancy, Chinese universities have a real opportunity to construct programmes that include input not only from typical business school academic areas such as finance and marketing, but also from the social sciences such as psychology and sociology.
It is also vital for Chinese universities to appreciate the importance of a localised approach to entrepreneurship education where course development should be built around national and regional cultures.
Educating tomorrow’s entrepreneurs must also involve constant reference to and discussion of specific national and regional cultural environments. Entrepreneurial success in the US will not be repeated easily in China without an acute insight into many aspects of Chinese consumer culture.
Now it the time to launch cross-faculty entrepreneurship education at Chinese universities. It is the year of the horse BUT budding Chinese entrepreneurs will only learn to gallop under the whip of China’s most successful entrepreneurs.
The author is visiting professor at China’s University of International Business and Economics and senior lecturer at Southampton Solent University’s School of Business.