Why are colleges and universities so keen on entrepreneurship?

June 2, 2016   |   CIHE Research

By Creso Sá

Students and faculty today have little trouble finding a way to explore entrepreneurial interests and aspirations right on the campus where they study and work. Incubators, accelerators, mentorship programs, entrepreneurship 101 classes, workshops, pitch competitions, hackathons and even entrepreneurship-themed campus residencies can be found in higher education. In Ontario, for instance, growth in such offerings accelerated in the late 2000s.

Universities and colleges proudly advertise these offerings and routinely promote the feats of participants: new technologies that ‘change the world’, profitable start-ups, and successful social entrepreneurship initiatives. We have reached a point where no higher education leader will publicly state: sorry, but entrepreneurs are not wanted on our campus.


Year of establishment of entrepreneurship programs in Ontario colleges and universities (6 were created between 1980-1999). Source: Sá, Kretz, and Sigurdsson (2014).

Is this just another aspect of universities’ engagement with promoting economic development? Are institutions responding to what governments want? Or is this a reflection of the commercialization of higher education?

None of these interpretations captures the whole gamut of what is happening. My recent book with co-author Andrew Kretz, The Entrepreneurship Movement and the University, examines the landscape of entrepreneurship education in the US and Canada. We analyze the multiple forces driving colleges and universities to nurture and support entrepreneurs. They include the centering of entrepreneurship in public policy, technological changes that have facilitated business creation, organized advocacy for campus entrepreneurship, student preferences, and the broader socio-cultural valuation of entrepreneurs. I will highlight three reasons why what we have called a movement cannot be explained by those conventional narratives.

First, the embrace of entrepreneurship in higher education goes well beyond the narrow notion of business creation. Across Canada and the US, colleges and universities offer curricular and extra-curricular entrepreneurship programs across a wide range of disciplines and professions, including the social sciences and humanities. Entrepreneurship is framed as a ‘mindset’ and as a set of ‘transferable skills’ that reflect the positive valuation ascribed to entrepreneurial behaviour: it is synonymous to innovation, risk-taking, and self-reliance. As those attributes are arguably valuable in any walk of life, academic programs have had little trouble integrating and justifying entrepreneurship as a focus.

Second, following from the above, most entrepreneurship offerings are not seeking to profit from commercialization. The clear exception are the university-based venture capital funds, incubators, and accelerators that take equity on start-ups – technology transfer offices might also do this in lieu of university-owned technology. In such cases, successful start-ups obviously translate into financial returns. However, as many universities now know, success is not assured. In general, university technology transfer operations (through patenting, licensing, spin-offs) hardly break even for the vast majority of institutions. More commonly, entrepreneurship centres and programs raise funds to subsidize the services they provide, and usually count on the participation of volunteers and alumni.

Third, governments have played an important role in the dissemination of entrepreneurship programming by providing funding and extolling institutional initiatives. Most often it has not lead or inspired new programs, but rather followed the lead of institutions perceived as successful in this area. Entrepreneurship programming has many champions including faculty, student associations, volunteers, donors, non-profit foundations, and alumni. They share a pro-entrepreneurship orientation, and some organizations such as the US Kauffman Foundation and the student organization Enactus are active ‘evangelists’.

This highlights an important distinction between support for entrepreneurship and universities’ technology transfer strategies: creating a start-up is only one means to commercialize university intellectual property (IP), and it may not be the preferred or most optimal in many circumstances. Nevertheless, those advancing entrepreneurship on campus carPicture1e about cultivating entrepreneurs regardless of university strategies for IP commercialization or even the existence of IP. So while these trends intersect when faculty and students form spin-off companies around their research, the scope of the entrepreneurship movement is much broader.

It should hardly be surprising that entrepreneurship now commands so much academic attention. Entrepreneurs are idolized in North America, and entrepreneurial activity has gone mainstream in many ways: it is featured in movies, TV shows, popular magazines, best-selling novels. Surveys show that Canadians and Americans view entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship as a career option quite favourably. Colleges and universities are responding to multiple incentives and demands for entrepreneurship learning and practice, in societies that hold entrepreneurs as modern-day heroes.

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