Jim Duffy: Universities must create more entrepreneurs

All I've heard all morning on a UK-wide radio station are commercial adverts by universities punting MBA degrees. Apparently all you need is an MBA from the likes of Henley or some other posh uni and you're on your way to big bucks.

What degree does a student have to take to qualify them to become a barista? Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
What degree does a student have to take to qualify them to become a barista? Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mums and dads all over the land right now are sweating over whether their wee darlings have made it into the uni of their choice. All those hours of studying, bad moods, stress, comfort eating and learning reams of useless stuff to regurgitate in an exam will hopefully have paid off. My own daughter even surprised me during her study regime… “Dad, I’m just heading out to Costa for a coffee”. Eh? Why? We’ve got jars of coffee in the kitchen and it’s a tenth of the price, I complained. No, she says. “I need a Costa to keep me going.” Jeez, I thought, 17 and already hooked on a legal drug to keep alert to pass an exam.

Universities do indeed play a big part in boosting the economy, while educating the next generation… who will hopefully support me into my old age. Maybe. They are important in creating aspiration and allowing young people to develop into credible functioning members of our society, who contribute to the jobs market and add value to us all. In particular, vocational degrees are essential in areas such as teaching and medicine. But, something is missing. Something is just not hitting the spot. And if we don’t get it right, then many of our universities will go out of business within the next 25 years or merge. Watch this space.

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From what I can see, universities are selling themselves on what happens to their alumni when they leave. In short, they rely on employability figures. ‘Seventy per cent of our graduates are in employment within 12 months of leaving our university’ is the bold cry. Where? Costa? I meet so many graduates working in coffee shops that I wonder what they did their degrees in. Maybe they spent so much time buying coffee to get them through exams that they thought becoming a barista is the logical next step to feeding their habit. So what did they study at university? What degree did they undertake that qualifies them to become a barista? And herein lies the problem.

The university business model is a busted flush. Universities are big businesses with huge budgets. As an aside, I personally don’t think our university principals get paid enough. The massive budgets they have to oversee are eye watering and any small business owner can only dream of running such enterprises with such large turnovers. But, selling degrees and putting bums on seats to bring in cash to feed the machine is not sustainable. Times are changing… churning out larger numbers of baristas, oops, I mean graduates and throwing them into the ‘jobs market’ is no longer an admirable pastime. And this is where the first university principal who says ‘screw it – let’s do it’ and changes the way some of their degrees are delivered will reap a long-term reward. Let’s stop creating employees and start creating business builders. It’s a completely different skillset and way of doing things.

Across all the departments within a university there are some amazing ideas and people. However, it is fair to say that the least entrepreneurial people in our universities are those who are situated in the business schools. By the time most business schools are finished with your little darlings, there is not an entrepreneurial bone left in their coffee-ridden bodies. So, if I was a uni principal I would be creating an entrepreneurial culture throughout the university. Firstly, I’d set out to disrupt my own business model and kill myself off. Yes, I’d set the task to my senate, leadership team and departmental heads. “Ladies and gentlemen, professors, doctors and all present, I’d like us all to become entrepreneurial intrapreneurs and smash up how we fund ourselves as if there was no tomorrow.”

I’d bring in an entrepreneur-in-residence and give her carte blanche to go through the university like a dose of salts – excavating and mining all the great stuff that is happening. I’d kill off the knowledge transfer partnership process that stifles intellectual property being exploited and re-imagine how my university can create more entrepreneurs than all the universities in the UK put together. A big hairy audacious goal… I’d create a skunk works within the uni across all functions to extract all the research and teaching and ideas. And finally, I’d re-create a degree that makes entrepreneurs to take it all to market. And this takes us back where we started.

Is it possible to create a qualification that is all about real business, starting up and bringing in investment and running a company? It would not be recognised initially by examination bodies, but it would be taught with great tutors who have run businesses on the teaching staff, and a qualification that does what it says on the tin. Market it to parents who would be willing to contribute and pay for it and, of course, the university takes an equity stake in each graduate business. Imagine what businesses could be created over the next 25 years with massive value.

I think it’s time for a change in how universities do business. I wonder if there is a principal out there who is up for the cup, willing to run an experiment.

He who dares…..

• Agitator and disrupter Jim Duffy is Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark