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IN MY OPINION

Are we all entrepreneurs now?

Entrepreneurship and innovation, while important and necessary, remain insufficient educational goals for Canada’s universities.

By DAN HARVEY + IMRE SZEMAN | DEC 17 2014

Can entrepreneurship be taught? Should it be? And what does it mean if it is?

Entrepreneurship has quickly become the new socioeconomic common sense, with the entrepreneur a celebrated figure and the start-up an unlikely object of fascination. Governments around the world now commit millions of dollars to programs and policies supporting entrepreneurship, and books celebrating it fill stores and the pages of the New York Times and Fortune alike. The reality TV franchise Dragons’ Den and its imitators have gained popularity around the world. Mattel recently launched a line of Barbie entrepreneur dolls, part of a program to inspire girls to follow their dreams by starting businesses. Signs and symptoms, desires and dreams: it seems that we’ve become certain that the values and beliefs of enterprise culture are the best way to grow our economies, solve our social problems, and expand our horizons as individuals.

Signs of the social importance of entrepreneurship can be seen on Canadian campuses, too. Our universities and colleges have established programs devoted to entrepreneurship. More significantly, they have launched institutes, incubators and accelerators to help students and faculty bring their ideas to the market and forged powerful links to innovation hubs. These engines of entrepreneurship include the University of Alberta’s Entrepreneurship HUB, the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence, and the University of Toronto’s Entrepreneurship Hatchery, as well as TEC Edmonton and Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District. Student entrepreneurship clubs like Enactus (formerly Students in Free Enterprise), with branches at 59 institutions in Canada and 1,600 globally, flourish.

Entrepreneurship now plays a major role in university planning and animates teaching and research priorities. Universities across the country are making entrepreneurial learning a priority, launching courses like the University of British Columbia’s Entrepreneurship 101, intended to engage students from across the disciplines as they “harness the tools of business to profit from their passions.” Ryerson University has begun producing a television program, The Naked Entrepreneur, in partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Network. Dalhousie University’s strategic plan aims to maximize opportunities for students and researchers, “to promote creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.”

A 2013 report by the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) puts it bluntly: “Entrepreneurship, upon which economists say economic growth depends, has moved from the margins to the mainstream of university education.” And most Ontario universities seem to agree: a majority of them listed entrepreneurship as core value in the recently completed Strategic Mandate Agreement exercise, a process that was supposed to help universities identify differences between them rather than common areas of focus.

What should we make of entrepreneurship’s recent and rapid move from the sidelines to the campus mainstream?

To begin with, as journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus recently pointed out in Wired, we should avoid accepting too quickly the “fantasy that entrepreneurship…can be systematized…that success in the startup game can be not only taught but…made predictable.” The faith in entrepreneurial education demonstrated by entrepreneurial programs and institutes ignores this problem: it suggests that we can teach entrepreneurship and easily provide students with the skills to win over Dragons’ Den’s grumpy venture capitalists.

Even if we put aside our doubts about the feasibility of this, the drive to make everyone an entrepreneur reinforces existing social changes that should trouble us all.

The COU’s statement that “universities are now preparing students to create their own jobs [and] jobs for other people” heralds the failure of our economic and political systems: if graduates want jobs, they’ll have to make them; if they need social supports, well, try harder.

The DIY version of society promoted through entrepreneurial education trains students to accept and even glorify a world of risk and uncertainty, characterized by a withered public sphere and a welfare state replaced by individual acts of social enterprise. The current buzzword within universities may be innovation, but it seems an oddly truncated version of the term, one that recoils from considering the possibility of substantial change to our economic, political and social systems. Instead, innovation is limited to profit-generating activities and techno-utopian fantasies about confident, market-savvy individuals who look out for themselves in the increasingly ruined (environmental, economic, political) worlds in which we live.

We worry that in the drive to produce entrepreneurial graduates, not only in business but across curriculums, we ill-equip them to deal with the pressing challenges of the times. There are collective challenges that require thinking outside of existing structures, a type of innovation that exceeds the entrepreneurship models promoted by Canadian universities today. Entrepreneurship and innovation, while important and necessary, remain insufficient educational goals if Canada wants to remain a global leader in the 21st century: disquietingly, they increasingly seem to be the only things that matter.

Daniel Harvey is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, where he teaches in the department of English and film studies. His dissertation examines the pre-eminence of entrepreneurship in economics, politics, and culture, as the 21st century’s common sense.

Imre Szeman holds the Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta. With Mr. Harvey, he is co-editor of a forthcoming special issue of SAQ (South Atlantic Quarterly) on the politics of contemporary entrepreneurship.

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  1. David Loewen / December 19, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Fully agreed, thanks for the commentary.
    Often the death knell for any ‘idea’ comes when it moves from the ‘margins to the mainstream in university education’.

    Call it what it is, not give it some fake flair to make it sound like these are skills that can be taught in academic halls, which often have as much entrepreneurial flavor as a mcdonald’s burger bun tastes like fresh baking.

    This idea that entrepreneurship can be ‘taught’ is quite entertaining and wasteful – more so that it can apparently be taught in the hallowed halls of academia. If everyone became an entrepreneur who would occupy government and bureaucrat positions that require very little innovative or entrepreneurial thinking? Who would occupy the famed tenured professor positions?

    If everyone became ‘entrepreneurs’ would this really be good for the economy? How many times does a successful entrepreneur fail before experiencing success? How many quit before they become actual ‘entrepreneurs’?

    Do we really want a nurse, or an airline pilot, or a biochemist, or a government agent processing Employment Insurance claims to take an ‘entrepreneurial approach’ – e.g. taking risks that the ‘average’ person would not, in how they go about their work?

    There is far too much irony in the old European-based model of institutions such as a university suggesting that they are the places whereby ‘entrepreneurship’ should be taught. Yes, there is some ‘innovation’ occurring in how universities go about delivering ‘education’… however, many still remain outdated, slow-moving, behemoths of bureaucracy and hierarchy where innovation is defined by establishing campus recycling programs and finding unique strategies to better utilize classroom space – not completely restructuring (and failing often) educational models.

    These institutions are also largely funded by government, alumni, and corporate sponsorship – not entrepreneurial spirit. They are also largely, fundamentally supported by ‘rinse-and-repeat’ business and staffing models. Lifetime students become teachers and rinse and repeat if necessary. If an entrepreneurial business model ran the same way it would become stifling and dead very quickly and eaten alive in an ultra-competitive market. Wait… it would be called a bureaucracy…

    These institutions would be far better off facilitating learning in the vital aspects of potentially becoming an effective and successful entrepreneur – communication skills (inter and intrapersonal), self management, conflict resolution, and other so-called ‘soft’ skills.

    Just like the plethora of ‘leadership’ bumpf (e.g. bafflegab) now being taught and tagged in academic institutions… entrepreneurship is catching up and taking over.

    My understanding of these institutions is that they are meant to be bastions of ‘critical thinking’; yet, these poorly thought out adoptive strategies spread like a cold virus in a kindergarten class (or the mumps in the National Hockey League).

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