Challenges and Opportunities: A Closer Look at Entrepreneurship Education in Australian Universities

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While the expansion in entrepreneurship education in Australian universities is impressive when assessed in terms of number of programs and curriculum offerings, a closer look reveals a more complex picture with a range of challenges.

The first postgraduate course focusing on entrepreneurship in Australian universities was introduced in the 1990s and the numbers have grown steadily since. A 2014 review of entrepreneurship education in Australia, for example, reported that over 95 per cent of Australian universities teach entrepreneurship at undergraduate level and 90 per cent at postgraduate level.

Support for entrepreneurship education extends beyond the formal curriculum. For example, peak lobby group Universities Australia has identified more than 100 programs supporting start-ups at the 38 public universities it represents.

In addition to formal curriculum, these initiatives include masterclasses, support for initiatives such as maker-spaces, accelerators and incubators. Many are open to staff, students and alumni, and some offer the backing of seed capital.

Judged in terms of activity and official support, entrepreneurship education would appear to be doing well. But the true picture is more complex.

Entrepreneurship education: A story of uneven support

Entrepreneurship education in Australia tends to be concentrated within business schools, rather than spread more evenly throughout the university. And, as the 2014 review of entrepreneurship education in Australia noted above found, the programs tend to be peripheral and focused more on teaching and pushing out publication, rather than engaging with industry or fostering entrepreneurial enterprises.

From an applied point of view, it is even questionable whether business schools are the natural home of entrepreneurship. While business skills are undoubtedly helpful in bringing an idea to market, the initial idea could come from any discipline.

Attempts to extend entrepreneurship education beyond the confines of the business school meet with mixed results. While entrepreneurship education often enjoys high levels of support from senior academic leaders and from state and Federal legislators and policy makers, the level of support it enjoys among teaching staff is highly uneven.

For example, in 2012 La Trobe University in Melbourne implemented a strategy to make entrepreneurial education — referred to “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” — an integral part of every undergraduate degree.

Each degree would be required to have at least one compulsory subject containing learning and assessment activities about innovation and entrepreneurship. This included one major assessment task on entrepreneurship worth at least 25 per cent of the final grade for the subject. If such a subject could not be fit into content of the degree, students need to be able to take electives to cover the same content —  potentially from another part of the university.

In practice, ensuring that all students have access to such content within their degree proved challenging. Degrees accredited by professional bodies, for example, found it difficult to accommodate this requirement, particularly the 25 per cent minimum. While the university valued entrepreneurship education, it was not necessarily a priority for accrediting bodies already struggling with crowded curricula.

Support for the integration of such content also varies across disciplines. As the subject co-ordinator of a public relations subject put it, If we don’t embed innovation and entrepreneurship, what have we taught them? I don’t think there is a choice. The question is: how quickly can we get it into the curriculum”.

Other teaching staff perceived the decision to integrate innovation and entrepreneurship as imposed in a top-down manner. Asked why she embedded innovation and entrepreneurship in her subject, one academic in the humanities and social sciences said simply “we were told to”.

Entrepreneurship and higher education: a tale of two cultures? Access the article in full in 2018 University Industry Innovation Magazine Issue 2 (p.30) for free.

Dr Christopher Scanlon – is Associate Director, Transformation & Learning Enhancement in the Learning Transformations Unit, at Swinburne University

Dr Silvia McCormack is the Academic Coordinator Coursework at La Trobe University in the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce.

Image credit: La Trobe University