The great debate: Entrepreneurship vs university

In the Spring 2019 issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine, Jonathan Davies explored the theme of entrepreneurship vs education. In a magazine full of entrepreneurs, he spoke to Andrew Henley, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Economics at Cardiff Business School, to get the other side of the story.

‘Should I start a business or go to university?’ It’s a question young, aspiring entrepreneurs are often faced with as they come to the end of their compulsory education. It is widely accepted that the UK’s education system does not do enough to promote entrepreneurship as a legitimate and possible career path for its students.

Steven Bartlett, the co-founder of Social Chain, and Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2017 NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards in Manchester is someone quite vocal in his criticism of university. Steven dropped out of university after one business lecture and launched his business. In a video he recorded in 2017, Steven says: “The vast majority of students in university right now are wasting both their time and their money. And the higher education system is totally broken.”

He goes on to say: “In today’s world, the information you learn at university is invalid within a few years, anyway… nearly half of these graduates regret going to university and half reckon they could’ve landed their current job without having to study.”

It’s an idea shared by Gary Vaynerchuk. The influential entrepreneur has spoken countless times about how education systems shun entrepreneurship, instead forcing students towards traditional career paths.

Now, university business schools are turning their attention to entrepreneurship. To understand the other side of the story, we spoke to Andrew Henley, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Economics at Cardiff Business School.

When I put it to him that a lot of entrepreneurs are saying that university is a ‘waste of time’, I asked why that is happening. He responded: “Really? Which entrepreneurs?”

“Yes, entrepreneurship is increasingly being promoted as a career option for young people, and young people in school and university have more options to see success from their peers (via social media),” he added. “But the data still shows that most self-employed business owners are older, choosing business ownership after gaining several years of commercial or professional experience.”

Andrew explained that, occasionally, smaller business owners concede that university education “raises career expectations, but may not always prepare graduates with appropriate “soft” employability skills to work in the competitive world in which many businesses operate.”

He also stressed that he’s encountered entrepreneurs who have expressed regret over not having a “more formal education in professional business skills such as accounting, corporate finance, marketing and strategy.”

There is an acceptance that traditional teaching tailored to management tracks in large corporates are no longer appropriate for all students, however. And Andrew stresses that business schools across the UK, and other departments in the wider university, are “more and more contextualising their teaching to careers in entrepreneurial businesses and social enterprises.”

A realistic pathway?

With many in entrepreneurship having spent years convincing young people that starting a business is a realistic pathway, is it now the job of universities to convince young people that education is a realistic pathway for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Andrew strongly believes university has a role to play in developing the entrepreneurs of the future. He said: “Universities are thinking much more about the relevance of curriculum to business start-up.

“Modules in small business and venture creation are increasingly popular with students, not least because they are often taught by committed and experienced staff, supported by the enthusiasm of Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, or willing guest role-models keen to recount their inspiring stories drawn from schemes such as the Welsh Government’s Big Ideas Wales programme.”

He also added that: “Universities now provide a lot of extra-curricular start-up support for students across all subjects, ranging from awareness of self-employment and business start-up as a career option, through to more immersive support delivered through longer programmes.”

The social media battle

In an age of social media, where everyone from seasoned serial entrepreneurs, to the young guns and influencers, are able to showcase their lives – the success, the money, the lifestyle – can universities really attract students?

“Entrepreneurship appeals to people for a range of reasons,” Andrew explains. “All the research shows that intrinsic motivators, particularly the appeal of personal freedom and autonomy that running your own business offers, are much more important than financial motivators.”

Andrew says that the media “sometimes portrays a very lop-sided view of entrepreneurs”, which he describes as ‘not helpful at all’.

“It is not going to be plain sailing and it will involve a lot of hard work.

“One thing that differentiates those who go on to start businesses is a more positive sense of optimism and attitude to risk. But equally, it is sensible for people starting a business to frame risk in terms of “affordable loss” and not to get carried away by wild expectations about how much money they will make.”

Why start at university?

It’s clear to see the higher education system wants to remove any idea that it is a blockade against young people starting businesses. Instead, it wants to focus on the skills that will support the entrepreneurial journey and the resources available to students.

“The main benefit is in terms of being able to connect with support during the important early start-up stage,” Andrew explains. “and to try out business ideas in business pitching and planning competitions.”

Competition winners are often provided with space in an incubator operated by the university or closely connected organisation, while all students have access to the “brain power” of academic tutors who often have experience that will come in handy in some way, shape or form. They will be “able to point you in the right direction to solve problems, even if they don’t directly have the answers.”

Andrew pointed out that some of the most successful technology companies in the UK began while their founders were at university, and that those entrepreneurs often maintain very close links with that university, “not least because they want to talent spot for the future”.

The learning opportunities available to aspiring entrepreneurs while they study is invaluable, Andrew says. He adds that networking, or “social capital building”, is another useful benefit of launching a business at university: “Three years at university can provide these in good measure; opportunities to connect with like-minded students, opportunities to meet entrepreneurs who have formal and informal connections with universities, opportunities to be mentored by people with experience and knowledge.”

It’s highly unlikely this debate will be settled any time soon, let alone by this feature. What it is doing, though, is highlighting that there are benefits to both avenues for aspiring entrepreneurs. Not going to university provides entrepreneurs will the time to fully focus on launching and growing their business, while time at university can be incredibly useful in terms of resources, connections and knowledge. And what is clear from speaking to Andrew, is that universities, Cardiff Business School, in particular, is working hard to modernise its offering to those who want to start a business; making business studies a lot more entrepreneurial.