Knowledge, skills and experience – life changing experience!

This week on the blog we have a Guest Post from Sarah Preedy, a Doctoral Teaching Assistant who works within the Futures Entrepreneurship Centre and supports the Beta Enterprise Programme. if you were interested in joining the programme, contact Amber and if you want to learn more about some of the activities follow the BETA Enterprise Category .

Can you describe your journey into entrepreneurship for us?

I began working with the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise here at Plymouth University in 2010 and learnt all about entrepreneurship activity within Universities. In that role, I liaised between the university and the regional business community to find opportunities for staff and students to engage in entrepreneurial activity. My role was so varied but I became especially interested in how universities support student entrepreneurs and what the drivers and limitations to this support may be.

Can you summarise your findings and suggests points for discussion on the research you recently undertook and (successfully) published  “An investigation into university extra-curricular enterprise support provision

The study was undertaken in academic year 2013 – 2014 to examine the delivery of extracurricular enterprise support to students at a sample of 20 UK universities. The research began as a form of mapping exercise and evolved into an almost evaluative study in which the perceptions of enterprise support were examined using a mixed method approach designed to hone in on staff and student perceptions of the support and possible recommendations for improvement.

It was found that the majority of universities were offering a breadth of activities but the interpretation of ‘enterprise support’ between institutions could range from a two hour one-to-one mentoring session to an email signposting a student to external business support services. Therefore, it is difficult to compare provision like for like across institutions. Monetary intensive support, such as free incubation space and start up grants was identified as increasingly important for students in planning their enterprise support journey while at university. However, amongst the 20 universities, the provision of free and chargeable business incubation space was less readily available to students than other forms of enterprise support. This is most likely reflective of the current fragile funding structures available to support enterprise activity at universities.

The data indicated that the communication of enterprise support activity, across and within faculties, can sometimes be uncoordinated. Although 74% of the sampled universities have centres for enterprise on campus, only 11% had any form of database where student enquiries into enterprise support are logged and tracked. Staff interviewees expressed concern that what are highly effective pockets of enterprise support activity have become disconnected and uncoordinated with no central database in place to track all enterprise support activity on campus. There appears a need for tracking systems that can not only quantify existing enterprise support activity but produce data on where the demand is and where limitations may be. This would enable coordination of activity, pooling resources thereby increasing collaborative activity and avoiding duplication of effort.

The predominance of enterprise support activities located within business schools was explored and participants referred to the business school as an “epicentre” of enterprise and noted that sometimes initiatives were limited to only business school students. Student interviewees expressed concern that this unfairly restricts students from other disciplines and staff were frustrated that support was not more evenly distributed across the institution.

The study reinforced prior research on the challenges faced by those delivering extracurricular enterprise activity at UK universities but updated this within the increasingly marketised HE environment. It has brought increased understanding of the concerns of students accessing this support through qualitative data based upon their perceptions.

The research also contributes original insight into the role of student led groups in assisting the delivery of extra-curricular enterprise support activities. The data demonstrated that student groups benefit from working in conjunction with the university through access to resources and support financial and non-financial but in return, these groups appear to be acting as an important mechanism for linking up enterprise support information across universities. They have a role to play in raising awareness of enterprise activity across campus and signposting students towards university support. Although, the existing relationship between staff delivering enterprise support activities and student led enterprise groups at the sampled universities is fairly informal, it is based upon mutual benefit and a closer, more formal arrangement between the two groups may improve coordination of the delivery of enterprise support activity across institutions.

What kind of innovative and enterprise (entrepreneurial) activities would you like to see implemented in Higher Education Institutions to support entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial spirit in current graduates?

Enterprising students tend to be the type of students that want to create something of their own. Top down structures and support, while valuable, may stifle students entrepreneurial spirit by prescribing what support is available and in what format. Grassroots enterprise groups should be encouraged to enable students to take their entrepreneurial endeavours into their own hands. My current doctoral research examines the presence of grassroots enterprise groups within universities and what role they play in students entrepreneurial learning processes. 

Based on your research so far, what do students stand to gain by engaging in enterprising activity?

Knowledge, skills and experience! For some students it can be life changing as they begin to identify as “an entrepreneur” and realise a new path in their life. For other students it can mean an increase in their confidence as they engage in presenting, pitching and networking. The business knowledge that a student can gain from entering enterprise competitions is invaluable and many enterprise activities at university encourage students to get out of the classroom and learn by doing. Engaging in enterprise activity can also introduce students to like-minded people and mean the formation of a new social circle. The value that employers place upon evidence of enterprising activity on CVs is not to be underestimated; some of the activities we run at the Futures Centre can greatly enhance a student’s employability.

What aspects of the BETA Enterprise Programme would you have jumped to be involved with if you had studied your under or post graduate at Plymouth University?

When I was at university I was very quiet and shy. I only focused on the goal of obtaining a degree and didn’t engage with any extracurricular activities. Looking back I wish I had engaged with something like the BETA enterprise programme. I could have improved my communication skills and business knowledge and this would have saved me a lot of years of internet research and professional development training later on!! I also could have built my professional networks up, something that students should do while at university to make it easier to find a job (or start a business) upon graduating.

PBS Staff Photo Shoot for web pages Sarah Preedy Doctoral Teaching Assistant in Entrepreneurship
Sarah Preedy
Doctoral Teaching Assistant in Entrepreneurship
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