If education is the best investment the world can make, then there needs to be evidence of a pretty strong impact.
I was reminded of this at a ten year reunion of Student Intern Programme alumni I attended just before Christmas. Among those clinking glasses were young graduate entrepreneurs who had never actually applied for a job, but had created their own, as well as creating great career opportunities for others. It was not just the knowledge, networks and skills that had enabled them to take this huge leap into the unknown, but the confidence they had gained through the structured and supported intern programme in their own institutions.
A prime example of this is another young graduate I have personally supported from his student days. Rajeeb Dey is co-founder of StartUp Britain, a national entrepreneurship campaign supported by government, and founder of Enternships.
Since 2009, Enternships has helped graduates finds jobs and internships in over 7,000 companies including Telefónica’s Wayra, Propercorn, eHarmony and Santander. Rajeeb himself was named one of the 1,000 Most Influential People in London by The Evening Standard and received an MBE last year.
Rajeeb is great reminder that young graduates, whatever they are studying and whatever their ultimate career choice, are going to increasingly need enterprise skills for the future. The biggest challenge is convincing them of this and having an infrastructure which enables them to develop these easily whilst studying.
It was from recognising these challenges that the Scottish Institute for Enterprise had launched the Student Intern Programme initially. The seed funding came from UK Government’s Science and Enterprise Fund, initiated by Gordon Brown when Chancellor, and matched by the universities.
Each of the (then) twenty Scottish higher education institutions was given funding to hire a student enterprise intern on a part-time salary. Their role was to promote and organise enterprise skills events which would capture the imagination and entrepreneurial spirit of their peers. Most typically, these were speaker events, local business plan competitions (which fed into a national competition and a weekend workshop for finalists) and a National Enterprise Conference at which there were over 1,000 students attending.
The interns were usually located within, and reported to, the Careers Service and more often than not the universities funded more interns and more programmes. Attendance at workshops and events was credited to their personal development plans, enhancing the interns’ development of their CVs, their networks and their confidence, alongside their enterprise skills.
Trundling home on the tube after the ten year reunion, I reflected on why the Student Intern Programme had been so successful. Perhaps most importantly, an entrepreneurial career can be open to anyone – there is no degree required and diverse backgrounds are more than welcome. Varied ideas and approaches, when combined with peer to peer support networks and enterprise skills, can result in unimaginable creativity for the long term – as I had just witnessed, our Student Intern alumni were still opening their networks to each other ten years on.
I feel optimistic that we are definitely heading in the right direction in terms of entrepreneurial education. The most recently available figures report that in 2013–14 over 4,600 new graduate start-ups were created 1, supporting over 18,500 jobs (full-time equivalent) and that there are over 100 university science and enterprise parks in the UK1.
However we need to constantly check that we are embedding entrepreneurship and innovation right into the heart of the higher education curriculum. Investing in education for the 21st century means more than simply repeating the teaching and assessment structures designed for the 20th – and in some cases, arguably, the 19th – century. If not, the evidence of impact will be in economic slowdown and graduate unemployment, not in start-ups and industrial collaboration where it belongs.