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Lessons in learning

Friday, 10 September 2010 | By Oliver Milman

Some of the best entrepreneurship tales involve those who seized an idea and fought their way up from the bottom, such as the bus tours that Graham Turner ran for a bit of extra money in the 1970s before starting Flight Centre, or Kerry Stokes’ stint installing TV antennas after leaving school aged 14.

 

 

Neither Turner nor Stokes would’ve had the opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship at university but this option is increasingly available to the current generation of budding business owners.

 

It may lack the romance of a rags to riches ascent, but pre- and post-graduate courses in entrepreneurship have proved popular enough to see their establishment in almost every major Australian university.

 

Swinburne University in Melbourne is one of the leading providers of courses for wannabe Richard Bransons, with 228 students undertaking either its Masters in entrepreneurship and innovation or a under-graduate commerce and entrepreneurship degrees.

 

The university claims that around 700 graduates have taken the MA course since its foundation 21 years ago, with 85% of grads going on to start their own business.

 

Professor Mike Donnelly, dean of the faculty of business at enterprise at the university, says: “We look at entrepreneurship skills and innovations. We’ve had study tours in other countries and industry-based and team-based learning. It’s what we call inquiry-based learning.

 

“It’s different from when I was at university, where you took notes and replicated them in an exam. Now you learn through doing.”

 

“It’s amazing to see how students respond. People say that education is just pouring one jug of water into another, but it’s more like lighting a fire.”

 

Entrepreneurship: can it be taught?

 

Donnelly is adamant that it’s possible to actually teach someone entrepreneurship, saying: “I don’t believe people who say that it can’t be taught. Are leaders born or made? Research says that emotional intelligence can be developed and you can develop entrepreneurship skills by presenting problems to students.”

 

However, while universities such as Swinburne offer structured, entrepreneurship-named courses, other universities incorporate the topic into other degrees.

 

The University of New South Wales focusses on teaching students about commercialisation and research rather than entrepreneurship, per se.

 

“You can’t actually make people inventive,” argues Chris Adam, professor of finance, and associate dean, postgraduate programs and director, AGSM at the Australian School of Business. “A happy outcome of entrepreneurship is enthusiasm and a good idea may occur to them. But you can’t say ‘you’re an entrepreneur, go and do it.’”

 

The University of NSW offers an executive MBA which results in 30% of its graduates starting up a company. Adam has witnessed the ebb and flow of entrepreneurship among students during the 15-year lifespan of the course.

 

“There was a real peak around 1999-2000 and then there was an abrupt cooling as the dotcom became the dot bomb and graduates went back to working in large organisations,” he explains.

 

“It’s grown again since 2005, the lenders are back in the market and even during the GFC people wanted to be brave and continue with their businesses.

 

“Gen Y is reaching the MBA courses level now and they are more relaxed about collaboration and working in teams. They are less committed to formal structures, which helps in entrepreneurship.”

 

In-house experts

 

Some universities have gone as far as having an ‘entrepreneur in residence’. Dr Marcus Powe, who has taught entrepreneurship since 1985, fulfils this role for RMIT in Melbourne. The university has an enterprise group and offers a BA in business and entrepreneurship, as well as offering entrepreneurship as electives for post-graduate study.

 

“There are two approaches in universities and there’s a lot of debate about it, the argument goes back and forth,” he says of whether you can practically teach entrepreneurship.

 

“I think that you can teach it, I don’t believe that you are born an entrepreneur. All children are creative and enterprising. Most educational systems crush that potential. The problem is that students have too many ideas and don’t know what they should do with them.”

 

To provide an outlet for entrepreneurial ideas, RMIT runs a business plan competition, where students studying subjects as diverse as physics and fashion can enter.

 

Other universities run similar activities. Griffith University in Queensland holds an annual innovation challenge, in which teams attend free workshops to develop their business plans under the guidance of experts. A judging panel then decides which teams should get a share of the $60,000 in prize money on offer.

 

Despite running this competition, Griffith doesn’t offer any specific courses in entrepreneurship. Ken Bennett, a senior lecturer who chairs the innovation challenge, says this is indicative of the way university teaching of entrepreneurship is going.

 

“It’s not something you can teach, you have to practice it,” he says. “You can teach elements of it and provide direction, but how can you teach someone to be a good leader?”

 

Going mainstream

 

Bennett says that the business planning competition shows up elements of business practice that have become mainstream concerns for new entrepreneurs.

 

“We used to teach Asian studies and that used to be niche, but now it’s mainstream,” he says. “We’ve had winners of the business planning contest from health groups not in the realm of business, where there’s not a profit to be seen.

 

“When I started in business, you’d never think of sustainability and profit in the same balance sheet, but now it’s mainstream. The modern world demands that they have that awareness.”

 

Melbourne University has managed to marry the practicalities of teaching a broad range of entrepreneurship-based topics (managing entrepreneurship and innovation, market development and entrepreneurship, innovation and entrepreneurship in IT, entrepreneurial finance and economics of innovation) with a thriving student-led entrepreneurship group.

 

The group, called Agents of Change, was founded in 2007 and open to any student in Melbourne. The group runs Entrepreneurship Week, which showcases successful entrepreneurs and features a competition that calls for innovative business ideas based upon simple objects such as napkins and wattle bottles. More than 1,000 attended E-week this year.

 

“There was nothing for students interested in entrepreneurship at the time, so we started up the group to help cultivate that,” says Tian Yang, one of the founders of Agents of Change.

 

“We wanted to raise awareness of entrepreneurship and we realised that many people were interested but they didn’t talk about it. It’s not like Stamford University in the US where everyone will talk openly about the businesses they want to start. People aren’t like that here.”