What is enterprise education and why is it important?

When I first encountered enterprise education it was largely a process of education ‘about’ enterprise and entrepreneurship – we were teaching a reasonably dry and information-heavy syllabus about largely high-tech entrepreneurship and big businesses. There was quite a lot of theory and abstract analysis of entrepreneurial activity but little practical content on how to do it.

Related: The definition of entrepreneurship

That was quickly being evolved into a syllabus that educated ‘for’ enterprise and entrepreneurship; using experiential learning to equip students to create new businesses. In fact an interview presentation in 2008 for what later became my current role was on the subject of ‘education for or about enterprise’ (I argued a case for both!) This school of education ‘for’ thought ranged from very practical advice on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of registering companies, creating patents, writing profit and loss forecasts and so on to the ‘entrepreneurial life-world’ approach which looked at the attitudes, motivations, skills, and contextualisation of the entrepreneur and their enterprising behaviour.

This did open doors for enterprise educators to reach new audiences, but access was still by and large limited to programmes of study where entrepreneurship was well-recognised and seen to be a valid exit for students graduating from that degree course.

It’s education ‘through’ enterprise and entrepreneurship that is really widening the application and appeal of enterprise education at present. Through the study of enterprise and entrepreneurship, we can get to a variety of other ends.

Firstly, it’s a useful microcosm for understanding any form of business – and for seeing the overarching business model that you might find hard to perceive in a massive multinational. Commercial awareness is the primary by-product of enterprise education and increasingly that commercial awareness is critical to the employability of graduates.

Secondly, it builds awareness of the wider world of work – partly that students should be aware that the graduate recruiters they see on their campuses are not the be-all and end-all of employment as most companies are in fact SMEs. It is also critical that students see the ‘business ecosystem’ of different companies, products, services and roles that exist. The hidden world of business-to-business supply chains is enormous. Letting students see this world helps their commercial awareness and gives them greater perspective and opportunity when they’re planning routes into employment.

Thirdly enterprise education that includes a strong experiential component is a valuable proving ground for skills development, professional behaviours, and establishing competency and confidence in work-related activities. This helps students identify their own strengths, weaknesses and preferences and to develop and enhance competencies useful far beyond business start-up. Communication, teamwork, negotiation, decision-making, resource acquisition, and opportunity evaluation – these are all skills with day-to-day applications in all walks of life and work.

Fourthly it can help deliver on the ‘student experience’ agenda – the lived experience of a student at a particular institution. This is again increasingly important to institutions competing for students. By encouraging students who organise and deliver clubs, societies, volunteering, and similar projects to engage in enterprise and entrepreneurship learning we can enhance the quality of the activities they run, providing a better service to other students. We’re also delivering enterprise education ‘through’ the medium of helping them run a better activity.

Finally, it helps deliver impacts. Enterprise and entrepreneurship education has a focus on innovation, on enacting ideas with value. Within academia, there is an increased focus on delivering impacts from research, and we can use enterprise education to build capacity amongst our current and future researchers to create impactful research.

In practice, most enterprise or entrepreneurship education will deliver value ‘through’ alongside value ‘for’ and ‘about’. What is significant between these distinctions is how an institution strategically makes use of enterprise education for diverse goals. It’s not just a niche interest in a business school or engineering faculty – it’s a methodology for delivering all kinds of institutional agendas.