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Learning to create value in environments of uncertainty with limited resources is something that can help all young people build their futures, especially amid the uncertainty of COVID-19. (Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa), Author provided

Entrepreneurship learning: All university students can benefit

Entrepreneurs, their associated startups and the subsequent growth of their companies have a vital impact on the health of our economy. In Canada, young adults have demonstrated a growing interest in entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship has historically been narrowly associated with business schools and traditional startups. But as the World Economic Forum has noted, “school systems must prepare students to work in a dynamic, rapidly changing entrepreneurial and global environment. This requires a complete paradigm shift for academia, including changing the fundamentals of how schools operate and their role in society.”

Students from all faculties can and should benefit from entrepreneurial skills, classically defined as learning to create value in environments of uncertainty, and with limited resources. Doing so will ensure our next generations are able to meet the challenges of tomorrow. This has never been truer than now, as we navigate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. How the pandemic will interact with the changing landscape of work remains to be seen.

Entrepreneurship at universities

My team at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa conducted a review in summer 2021, now published in both English and French, of entrepreneurship activities at the largest 27 universities in Canada.

We set out to uncover the number and type of entrepreneurship courses available, the opportunities for students to learn this valuable skill set outside the classroom and the current practices in supporting student startups. We found some encouraging information and opportunities for improvement.

Surprisingly, we uncovered an average of 22 entrepreneurship-focused courses per institution. Examined together, these courses spanned many faculties (including engineering, science, arts and social science) and levels of study, from undergraduate to doctoral and post-doctoral studies.

A student at a computer.
A survey of 27 universities in Canada found entrepreneurship-focused courses running in faculties like engineering, science, arts and social science. (Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa)

This is a dramatic increase in the number of entrepreneurship courses offered at institutions in the last decade. A similar 2014 review of entrepreneurship courses in 20 Ontario universities revealed an average of only 5.7 entrepreneurship courses per institution. In 2010, most institutions offered between one and five entrepreneurship courses.

Beyond business schools

Entrepreneurship is no longer strictly the domain of business schools. Many faculties are recognizing the importance of this skill set for students, and on average, 3.5 faculties per university teach entrepreneurship.

Our review found positive indicators related to the number and type of entrepreneurship courses available.

Most have moved beyond business planning courses as a default entrepreneurship offering. There are now courses that focus on the early stages of new ventures such as creativity, generating ideas, identifying opportunities and how to validate early ideas by talking to customers.

New ventures, social entrepreneurship

Universities are finding ways to customize traditional “big business” topics for brand-new ventures. Such approaches recognize that new ventures launched by students aren’t beginning with the money, staff or resources that larger firms have, in courses about marketing for entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship law and financing new ventures.

Additionally, courses that have not been traditionally taught outside of Engineering programs are emerging in other faculties. Examples include courses about design thinking and new product development, software venturing, making a prototype and others.

The course titles most often added in the last few years include those associated with social entrepreneurship — startups that seek to help solve societal problems and aren’t focused on just making a profit. Students from all faculties are looking to solve real-world problems with unique business models.

RBC Fast Pitch Competition showcasing top teams from two courses in entrepreneurial thinking at the Haskayne School of Business.

Traditional classroom study isn’t the only way educational institutions are able to influence students’ learning. Examples include experiential programming such as competitions where students can pitch ideas and meet possible business co-founders; skills training workshops (available at most schools); student-run conferences; student clubs promoting entrepreneurship in a variety of contexts and disciplines — from those selling art, starting a counselling practice or commercializing a health science discovery.


Read more: How to help artists and cultural industries recover from the COVID-19 disaster


Learning by doing

Providing students with experiential learning opportunities allows for experimentation, application of skills and valuable networking. These learning-by-doing activities have been found to trigger the development of many important entrepreneurial competencies.

Other encouraging non-credit learning programs exist, such as opportunities for students to hear from external entrepreneurs. Our data showed that between summer 2020 and summer 2021, co-op work terms where students could work in their own start-ups gained popularity. In 2020, only 43 per cent of schools we reviewed offered this kind of work placement, but in 2021, 70 per cent of schools are doing so.

The prevalence of support for student start-ups is encouraging. Each year a growing number of students start their ventures while also pursuing their academic studies.

Creating value

Almost all universities offer some sort of incubator services — programs that offer students access to mentorship, investors and other support to help them establish their very early stage companies. Most offer more than one such program. Beyond mentorship, support for students may include consultation services, funding, training and space to work from.


Read more: PhD students can benefit from non-academic mentors' outside perspectives


Many student entrepreneurs are selling valuable products and services in our communities and beyond and creating jobs: For example, in 2018, the University of Toronto reported that its nine incubators and accelerators at three campuses helped produce more than 150 companies over the preceding five years, and generated more than $500 million in investment. Students involved in such successful ventures are graduating into their existing businesses, and rather than looking for a job upon graduation, are creating their own.

Expanding access to all students

Student interest, donor funding and economic imperatives continue to drive both entrepreneurial interest and activity in universities, and there are some very good practices.

Still, much work remains for many institutions to ensure all students, regardless of their faculty or career aspirations, have access to essential entrepreneurship skills.

Universities must continue to look to redefine who they teach, establish what they teach and finally, improve how they teach.

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