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Entrepreneurial education in universities

Smart specialisation is essentially based on a process of entrepreneurial discovery. As the University is one of the main actors in research and innovation, it’s interesting to raise some questions related to their role in RIS3, and specifically how do they participate in the entrepreneurial process of discovery.

Written by Francisco Michavila Pitarch and Jorge Martínez Martínez

Reviewed by David Walburn


The concept

How to implement it?

Step in the RIS process

What can be expected?

A quote


Experts' comments


The concept

During the second half of the past decade, European universities were engaged in a process of convergence in the European Higher Education Area and in the European Research Area, two key elements of the European strategy. The demands to the universities in the area of the third university mission have been intensified in recent years, thus motivating a major opening of these institutions to the social and economic agents of their environment. In most cases, it might be said that universities have been pushed to open outwards, especially in the fields of training, research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Today, European universities are considered a part of that ecosystem that encourages actions to promote entrepreneurship at regional scale and therefore a part of the regional entrepreneurial process of discovery.

But, at the same time, in most countries of the European environment there have been significant reductions in public spending, and universities have not been exempt from these measures. Hence, universities in Europe face the challenge of fulfilling their missions with fewer resources, to introduce greater efficiencies in its operations and improve its response to the needs of the environment.


How to implement it

Although there is no consensus on the entrepreneurial university concept, from a more institutional point of view, the entrepreneurial university should be able to coordinate persons, resources, processes, procedures and results through a culture that encourages boldness, dynamism, energy and perseverance at work. Entrepreneurial education is developed in the process of research and innovation, but also through training.

Entrepreneurship goes beyond the simple creation of businesses, so the essence of entrepreneurial education needs to be translated to all training areas of our universities.  US universities, from Northwestern to Babson College and the Business Schools, have developed their own model of entrepreneurial education. Any of these are good examples. If the model of entrepreneurship used in every major American university is analysed, many similarities are found.

The two reports ("Educación emprendedora: buenas prácticas internacionales" and "Educación emprendedora: buenas prácticas en universidades españolas") published by the Spanish Fundación Universidad-Empresa show the main types of entrepreneurial education development in universities. These make for a wide catalogue of successful stories in these universities. The list comprises a wide range of practices:

  1. No-curricular enterprising training
  2. Curricular enterprising training
  3. Training Centres, advising and incubating business ideas
  4. Technology-based Entrepreneurship
  5. Entrepreneurship chairs
  6. Entrepreneurship contests
  7. International programs for entrepreneurs
  8. Platforms and virtual enterprise networks
  9. Networking for Entrepreneurs
  10. Collaboration and other activities related to entrepreneurship

The opportunity could be the development of an own entrepreneurship education model in line with the needs and strengths of their environment, reaching the various tasks of the university and involving all groups of the university community. It is therefore a matter of entrepreneurship in teaching, content and methodology; research through transfer; and management and university life.

Resources constitute all the tools and organizational elements available at the university to develop this enterprising education, from the organizational structures to the infrastructure, procedures, equipment and materials for teaching, research and transfer.

The team is the university community: support staff, managers, directors and, above all, teachers and students. But also external agents involved in the regular functioning of the universities.

This model of entrepreneurial education would need to introduce certain values to make it work:

  • Leadership to accurately determine the opportunity, to encourage participation and commitment to take its development, in this case as an institutional commitment, and to form the basis of national and regional research of innovation strategies.
  • Communication to make it known to the university community, share it and endorse it; for the context, students, families, entrepreneurs, among others, be aware of it; and to attract the necessary resources for its development.
  • Creativity to figure out how to develop the opportunity and to apply resources and equipment adequately to the idea, in a context beyond college campuses, looking for the most diverse ways to encourage the participation of universities in the process of the discovery and training of entrepreneurs.

Possibly, the success of some European universities that have created its own model of entrepreneurship education takes root in these three values.


Step in the RIS3 process

Step 5: policy mix


What can be expected

 More entrepreneurial universities.

  • More involvement of universities in the entrepreneurial process of discovery.


A quote

“We need to fully mobilise the capacities of Europe’s universities to contribute to regional economic and social development and this will be a crucial factor for the success of the Smart Specialisation Strategy.”. Maria Helena Nazaré, EUA President. The role of universities in Smart Specialisation Strategies, 2014.




The authors


FRANCISCO MICHAVILA PITARCH, Head of the UNESCO Chair on Management and University Policy, Ph.D. in Minning Engineering,  Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Among other positions, he has been Secretary General of the Council of Universities, Rector of the University Jaume I of Castellón and Director of the High Technical School of Mine Engineering of the Polytechnic University of Madrid.



JORGE MARTÍNEZ MARTÍNEZ is an economist by the Autonomous University of Guadalajara (Mexico) and Diploma in Electoral Marketing by the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM). He holds Master and Ph.D. in Government and Public Administration.  He has several publications and has participated in several international reports on Higher Education. Presently, Dr. Jorge Martínez is Deputy Director of the UNESCO Chair on Management and University Policy since June 2007.


Expert's comments

To European eyes, the United States is the place where universities really do entrepreneurship. The stereotype is of academics engaged in cutting-edge research with one eye on venture capital providers so that they have the prospect of both academic recognition and the chance of making a personal fortune. University administrations are seen as being keen to finance research and to want their institutions to have a financial stake in its commercial exploitation. Whilst this description may only apply to a few universities, or parts of universities, there is enough truth in the stereotype to attract policy-makers in Europe where boosting research and innovation are seen as so important in increasing economic growth and competing effectively with the US. This is what the 2000 Lisbon Agenda was all about. Its relevance to RIS3 is the same.

It is therefore a good thing that for decades now, an important strand in public policy in Europe has been to try to make universities more entrepreneurial. Part of this has been for universities to become places where entrepreneurship is taught as a discipline – opening the eyes of students and academics to the opportunities of being an entrepreneur, and teaching them how to do it. It is this aspect which is the concern of the present paper. If the US stereotype has been entrepreneurship as an attractive career option, then in Europe it has been the professions and “safer” corporate job opportunities which have held sway and contributed in the minds of policy makers to Europe’s persistent lagging in its level of innovation.

As I have already written in my commentary for the paper on Universities In Innovation Policy (July 2014) it is very hard to create major change in universities. Many universities have little experience of the notion of involvement in any activity which could be described as “entrepreneurial”. In some countries in the EU both the regulations and the culture in universities have been hostile to the commercial exploitation of research, especially by the individual academics carrying it out. Greater state involvement in the running and financing of universities in Europe than the US[1] has also meant that there is a limited scope for financial risk taking.

These problems are well known and there is no need to describe them further here, except to emphasise that it will take a long time and a lot of effort on the part of all the organisations involved in economic development to achieve meaningful change. This will require persistence from policy makers and practitioners.

As the paper points out very clearly, the problem needs to be tackled in a multi-faceted way, with many aspects of the organisation and workings of universities to be addressed. The good news is that examples of good practice abound. This is particularly true of the United States, but some of Europe’s leading universities, particularly those with world class research capabilities are also showing the way forward.


Mr David Walburn

After a career in business David Walburn joined Greater London Enterprise in 1986 where he was responsible for venture capital and other small business support, before becoming Chief Executive of the organisation. He was the Chair of the London Business Angels Network and played a key role in the setting up of the European Business Angels Network. He has worked with the UK government and the European Commission on developing public policy initiatives to improve the financing of small and medium-sized enterprises. He was the Chair of Capital Enterprise, the umbrella body for organisations supporting micro business development in London, until 2012.

For the last ten years he has been a Visiting Professor at London South Bank University where he headed the Local Economy Policy Unit and was the managing editor of the journal Local Economy.

He has served as President of EURADA, and been a member of a number of advisory bodies of the European Commission.  He has been an active member of the International Economic Development Council in Washington DC and has a wide range of international contacts with economic development organisations.

He continues to write and lecture on small business finance and regional economic development.


[1] This is not to minimize the role of US government funding of research, and especially military-based research, carried out in American universities, and where spin-off commercial exploitation is often encouraged. Such military spending is of course very much lower in the EU.