Universities have existed for hundreds of years with the University of Karaouine in Fez, Morocco, (established over a millennium ago) still operating. Although there are parallels between medieval universities and those of today as places of higher education and knowledge, many of today’s universities have realized the need to break down the ivory tower walls, and become more immersed in and engaged with the communities they serve, while retaining pure the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. As universities evolve and adapt to changing community attitudes and increasing technological and social change, community engagement is becoming an imperative underpinning relevance, resilience, and sustainability.
Entrepreneurship as a new form of university engagement
Community engagement, as an ethos and way of operating that is embedded in university culture, is evolving. Traditional approaches to community engagement can occur through meetings among university, industry, and government personnel, university workshops and seminars open to the public, community partnerships, etc. Although traditional engagement methods provide the foundations, evolving community expectations of universities require additional innovative engagement approaches as communities look for increasing university contributions to enhance their prosperity.
The facilitation of entrepreneurship in communities by universities provides opportunities for universities to engage with and contribute in ways not addressed by more traditional engagement methods. Entrepreneurship in universities has often been viewed from an academic disciplinary perspective underpinned by entrepreneurship teaching and/or research and quite separate to engagement – though the two do not need to be mutually exclusive.
However, an increasing number of universities also undertake non-academic entrepreneurial activities through the establishment of business incubators, innovation hubs, co-share work spaces for students, etc. Other institutions take entrepreneurship a step further and look to develop a more entrepreneurial and innovative culture in both the student body and academic/professional staff.
The knowledge and experience universities accumulate through their entrepreneurship academic and non-academic activities can be significant and influential. Entrepreneurship is a powerful tool for developing and regenerating economies and so should not be overlooked as an essential tool for engagement. The time is ripe for institutions to address entrepreneurship engagement opportunities through co-creation and collaboration with industry and government to meet the increasing wider community needs.
Capitalizing upon their accumulated entrepreneurial knowledge and experience, universities can position themselves as leadership exemplars for facilitating entrepreneurship in communities because they, more than any other entity, are in a position to provide a multi-layer value bundle to the communities they touch comprised of economic, intellectual, social, and cultural value.
Thus, engagement through entrepreneurship can augment traditional engagement efforts. But this means that universities themselves need to embrace entrepreneurship; not just in a piecemeal fashion. That means, entrepreneurship teaching, research, and engagement are required to be present in the university with the boundaries among the different academic and non-academic components being permeable (rather than having impenetrable academic versus non-academic silos) with each component complementing and informing the other.
Those universities poised to become more successful at engaging with communities through entrepreneurship will adopt a holistic and systemic approach to entrepreneurship that integrates the academic research and teaching and non-academic engagement entrepreneurship components. Their success will be underpinned by the creation of a one-stop shop entrepreneurship portal that provides a dedicated pathway into the university as well as a focused entrepreneurship unit poised to engage with communities that can provide a plethora of entrepreneurial services, skills, knowledge, advice, and experience.
The future-thinking university – with entrepreneurship embedded
And so, consider a future-thinking university that integrates its academic entrepreneurship research and teaching staff with its non-academic mentoring, innovation hub incubation facilities, and prototyping activities into one cohesive unit with innovation hub nodes embedded across the university and in local, regional, and international communities. The benefits are many.
Its students studying entrepreneurship or undertaking entrepreneurship learning alongside other degree programs have the opportunity to undertake internships with the entrepreneurial ventures located in the incubator(s) and various internal and external nodes or set up their own business. In this way, they not only learn about entrepreneurship, but are doing entrepreneurship. That means, when they graduate they not only have a University degree but also a functioning start-up venture that can be integrated into the community.
If the university has established international business incubation facilities in overseas communities, the students undertaking internships in these facilities not only develop an appreciation for global entrepreneurship and dealing with risk and uncertainty in overseas environments. Rather, the communities supporting the incubators also benefit from the students being there – culturally, economically, socially, and intellectually through the exchange of ideas – as they integrate into the community (at least for the term of their internship studies).
For example, imagine if a non-European university had established an incubator in the Champagne region in France with students undertaking a for-credit internship course with local French businesses in the incubator and being given the opportunity to undertake work experience in the Champagne Houses, French Patisseries, and/or French Cheese-Making businesses located in the region. The students benefit and the community benefits, in multiple ways. And, because of the ongoing relationships developed between the university and the community there, other engagement, research, and/or educational opportunities may evolve benefiting both the university and the community.
Technological change moves at a significant pace, compelling social change in its wake. Higher education institutions should be at the forefront of this wave, but the bureaucracy involved in the revolutionary change required often cannot keep pace. Disruption is a given! Change should be brought about by the proactive directive of institutions rather than a lagged reactive response that still may not fully meet the changing demands of society.
And so, while entrepreneurship can assume a more traditional role in universities contributing to their teaching load and research outputs, while other university business units assist students and staff to commercialise their research innovations by way of tech transfer and business incubation, entrepreneurship can also be a key pillar in facilitating community engagement through developing ongoing relationships with communities and generating real value in those communities.
Adopting a holistic approach and integrating the academic and non-academic entrepreneurship components will create additional value. While using entrepreneurship to engage with communities may be something for the distant future for many universities, there are some that are already doing this now because they see the benefits of augmenting/disrupting the traditional community engagement approach and using entrepreneurship to drive growth and shape their future.
Noel Lindsay is Pro Vice Chancellor – Entrepreneurship and Director of the Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation & Innovation Centre (ECIC) at The University of Adelaide, where he is the Professor of Entrepreneurship and Commercialisation. Within his position, Noel has gained extensive experience in leadership, team building, strategy, quality assurance, corporate governance, and change management, which complements his role in establishing and developing an Australian University in South Africa. Noel has investigated blended learning approaches to teaching entrepreneurship to high functioning intellectually disabled young people in his recent major research projects. He has established and harvested ventures in various countries, including Australia, South Africa, and Malaysia.