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Some uni students want to be more than employees, but we’re neglecting these would-be entrepreneurs

Australia’s higher education system is, more or less, focused on training people who will work for others’ companies. This “employee mindset” leads students to have a vision of being recruited as an employee in a good company after they graduate. It can stop students from thinking outside the box and so becomes an obstacle to entrepreneurial innovation.

The GUESSS Project (Global University Entrepreneurial Spirit Students’ Survey) reports on entrepreneurial aspirations and students’ underlying drivers of this career choice in more than 50 countries. The 2018 GUESSS Global Report found only 9% of all students intended to become an entrepreneur right after they completed their studies. This figure had increased to 17.8% of students by the time of the 2021 GUESSS Global Report.

In Australia, the share of direct intentional founders (students who intend to be entrepreneurs right after their studies) increased from 9.1% in 2018 to 16.1% in 2021.

This significant shift in just three years calls for higher education institutions to respond to students’ entrepreneurial intentions. It points to a need to offer curriculum that helps develop their entrepreneurial skills.

Read more: Albanese promises support for young entrepreneurs to develop startups

How can universities foster entrepreneurs?

Recent research has shown entrepreneurship education can boost students’ creativity and entrepreneurial capability, thus supporting their entrepreneurial aspirations. Another study found “a statistically significant relationship between management students’ entrepreneurship education, attitude towards entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial intention”. The researchers urged universities to provide training modules for students with an interest in being entrepreneurs.

According to the 2018 GUESSS report, universities can play a significant role when it comes to entrepreneurship. The 2021 GUESSS report sheds more light on this with the finding:

“Entrepreneurship education and the entrepreneurial climate at the university are key determinants of entrepreneurial intentions and activities.”

The report also notes:

“The ventures run by the students are mostly very young and very small. Still, the entrepreneurs are rather happy with their performance.”

Read more: From student to start-up – how a PhD can boost budding businesses

Adding entrepreneurial skills to the curriculum

In response to this gap in the curriculum, we developed an initiative in the postgraduate project management course at Victoria University. Working with Michael Jackson, a previous graduate who became an entrepreneur and established two project management firms before retirement, we created a project that required students to work in groups to develop a proposal for a project management start-up. The group approach was consistent with the findings of the 2021 GUESSS report, which said:

“Founding teams are of crucial relevance for both nascent and active founders. Only around one-third of all firms have been created without a co-founder.”

This initiative challenged students and took their skills to a whole new level. Their feedback was very positive. One student said:

“I found [this initiative] to be exceedingly realistic with a practical approach in trying to start a new business. The professors provided an eye-opening glimpse into the realities of the work life and the opportunities that it offers.”

Another student said:

“Applying the theory with a real-world example was great. It also helps for those with aspirations of starting a PM [project management firm] in the future.”

Another team member noted:

“This assignment helped me to understand what factors to consider and analyse before starting a business and how to apply the project management principles in real life.”

I did a follow-up with members of the group with highest project performance, which produced further insights. The group leader said:

“I’ve always wanted to start my own business […] There are several variables involved in launching a firm and the assignment helped us understand and close any gaps.”

Among the challenges the group had faced during the project were disagreements on some tasks, and the need for constant communication among team members.

Read more: The push for 'researcher entrepreneurs' could be a step backward for gender equity

What are the key success factors?

Various factors contributed to the success of the top performer group. Effective communication and team spirit were among the most important. Although the top-performing team had members from different backgrounds, they seemed to have created a common language by having regular meetings.

Another important factor is “problem-solving” ability. No group effort can be undertaken without any problems. Encountering problems in a group project is not bad in itself, but being unable to solve such problems is a major weakness.

Having a capable team leader is another success factor. One member of the top-performing group appreciated having a team leader who paid attention to details and was very patient with everyone. The student said the group leader made an extra effort to explain the work required to team members who had difficulty understanding the project requirements.

Ability to think outside the box is another success factor. The students had to put aside many of their preconceptions and apply themselves to problems as they arose. One student said this project made them think outside the box while making sure their plan was realistic and practical.

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