Germany needs more entrepreneurs. But while recent surveys agree that 25% to 30% of young scientists have good chances for creating a start-up, only 5% currently dare to take this step. In our ongoing series, Next Wave Germany and the Berlin Institute of Entrepreneurship have invited leading experts to discuss ways in which the culture of entrepreneurship can be fostered at German universities. This week, Allan Gibb, professor at Durham University and chair of the Small Business Centre at Durham University Business School, United Kingdom, tells us how entrepreneurship challenges students of all faculties to make sense of things in innovative ways.

This proposition challenges us to review the overall mission of universities. If we are to propose a central place for entrepreneurship right across the curriculum, it must relate to the fundamentals of university life. Can entrepreneurship measure up in this respect?

My answer is 'yes' on two grounds. First, I would argue that the mission of universities is not only about the scholarship of discovery (research) and teaching in the narrow sense of the pursuit of excellence within the various disciplines. It is also about the scholarship of relevance and the scholarship of integration. Both are central to the notion of the university as a learning (as opposed to a learned) organisation.

A learning organisation is one that is open to all sources of knowledge, including experience. Pursuing the relevance of research and teaching demands insight into practice, feedback from implementation of research results, and information from developments outside of the research. Through pursuit of this objective, teaching also becomes more relevant. Secondly, the university as a true learning organisation is also one that challenges intellectually across the disciplines. It has long been recognized that the provision of knowledge is insufficient in a university context--it is the ability to use this knowledge that is at the heart of the university mission. Thus integration and multidisciplinarity are central to the university endeavor.

How does entrepreneurship enhance this view of a university?

First, by its focus on the nurturing of entrepreneurial behaviors in students, it demands an approach to learning that

  • stimulates creativity and innovation, problem-solving, and opportunity-seeking capacities,

  • maximizes student ownership of learning,

  • encourages initiative taking and independent thinking,

  • stimulates active learning by doing and finding applications,

  • demands an holistic and therefore multidisciplinary approach,

  • encourages networking, and

  • encourages learning from 'know who' and 'know how' as well as from 'know what' and 'know why'.

Entrepreneurship therefore helps to create insight. Overall, it challenges students to put different kinds of knowledge together and make sense of things in innovative ways. Such approaches to learning are relevant right across all faculties and subjects.

Second, it provides a vehicle for the university to reach out to the community to apply and test its knowledge. The doctoral engineering student who seeks to test whether his/her idea works in practice as well as in theory is pursuing the scholarship of relevance and, inevitably, of integration. The department that creates partnerships with key stakeholders in the environment, whether it be the department of theology or geology, is grasping the opportunity for integration and wider learning.

If we allow entrepreneurship to engage across the university, will it not contaminate research and teaching with a business/commercial ethic?

This is a frequently asked question and it deserves a clear answer. The most important response is that entrepreneurship is first and foremost about stimulating enterprising behaviors and designing organisations that allow these behaviors to become an effective means for social and economic development. This is not corporate business. In my view entrepreneurial behavior has its place in all walks of life, from church to school to social services and also to business. Its place in new business venturing is well established and will play a part in any university programme. But to claim a place across all of the university curriculum demands a broader conceptualisation. Such conceptualisation is probably central to acceptance by university staff of all departments and political and ideological outlooks. It is also central for those who are leading the charge to introduce entrepreneurship more broadly into the academic curriculum. Too narrow a focus may mean that in the long run there will be little real progress.