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Students could be Australia’s largest group of entrepreneurs. AAP/Lukas Coch

Turnbull’s ‘ideas boom’ overlooks our largest group of potential entrepreneurs

It is refreshing, encouraging and even exciting to see the $1.1 billion package of innovation initiatives announced by the Turnbull government. Almost anything that is proactive would have been a great improvement over the past few governments’ relatively lame efforts.

But there is one glaring omission that surrounds the human capability and talent factor of the present statements.

Firstly, let’s mention what is good in the package. The main positive is the courage and innovative attitude and culture that it promotes overall. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull knows the issues and the opportunities, and has the right approach to leading and explaining risk-taking, even as it applies to government itself.

This package is relatively predictable in tackling university-business relationships and collaboration where we are well behind the rest of the developed world, and in focusing on digital economy aspects of innovation: if anything, parts of it are too focused on innovation in the digital economy and could do more to unleash innovation in other sectors.

But while there is money and initiatives for schools and initiatives for CSIRO and university–industry collaborations, it ignores the fact that there is a regular product of universities (and TAFEs) that can be highly leveraged to contribute well to our national innovation - the graduates themselves, if they were equipped to do so.

We have about 1.4 million higher education students in Australia, three quarters of whom are domestic, studying business, law, engineering, arts, medicine. Most of them, even in business, science and engineering, get little or no education, knowledge or capability about how to “do” innovation and how to be entrepreneurial, whether it is in a startup or as an employee.

In most universities, there are only a small number of elective subjects at best, taken by only a minority of students. We have great potential to do much more and better. There are a set of skills, attitudes and behaviours, plus the business acumen that can be learned and developed, that in a perfect world would be part of the skill set of every graduate, and indeed every member of the workforce. Our research has shown that many students would find such courses attractive.

The innovation skills and capabilities involve knowing how to think laterally and creatively, knowing how to evaluate ideas in terms of their potential business value and practical ability to be scaled up to succeed in markets, knowing how to participate in innovation project teams, how to manage change and risk, how to finance, lead and strategise innovation and entrepreneurial activities. Our deep research has shown that these characteristics are core to sustainable innovation capability. They can be taught and experientially practised.

It is great to hear that the present innovation measures are only the first steps, so please consider, Mr Turnbull, ramping up the investment in the capability of our few hundred thousand graduates who enter the workforce every year. The return on developing an excellent innovation and entrepreneurship curriculum and funding its widespread implementation would be high. With it, we will achieve the culture and behavioural change that has been so well articulated by the government.

Without it, science, accounting, law, medicine, architecture and even applied disciplines such as engineering and management will remain narrow and technical, and graduates will mostly not deliver their innovation potential. Let’s widely and thoroughly unleash the innovation potential of our graduates.

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