Universities are key institutions for developing future professionals, leaders and academics, but to what extent do they ignite entrepreneurship in students?
Dr Grigorios Theodosopoulos, a business accounting expert from Brunel Business School, along with researchers from the University of Naples Federico II and Queen Mary University of London, has explored the impact that university education has on developing a student’s entrepreneurial intentions – the desire to establish a business or to become self-employed and the willingness to work hard to achieve their goal.
The new study, published in Studies in Higher Education, surveyed 2553 students from the UK, Italy, Spain and Poland, who were studying specialist subjects distinct from entrepreneurship, such as business management, social sciences, politics and engineering.
The students were all given a questionnaire based on the theory of planned behaviour (TPB), which is the main theory used to explain the mental process affecting a person’s intentions to become an entrepreneur within the context of education.
The questions focused on the theory’s three indicators: attitude; subjective norms, which is the perceived belief that an important person or group of people will approve and support a particular behaviour; and perceived behavioural control, which is the perceived ease or difficulty of performing the behaviour.
Perceived control of behaviour can be interpreted as the degree to which students think that they can successfully start a new business or become self-employed - and it can reflect past experiences and expected obstacles.
As well as covering all aspects of TPB, the questionnaire also considered the skills that students develop at university through educational activities that can enhance their intentions to begin entrepreneurial pursuits. These skills include innovative thinking, communication skills and leadership.
By incorporating the general skills which universities aspire to impart to students, we provided a direct test of how effective the university’s education is in inspiring students to become entrepreneurs.
The results of the survey showed that the influence of skills gained at university had the most positive effect on a student’s entrepreneurial intentions, surpassing, in most cases, each of the three TPB indicators.
With regards to the TPB indicators, a student’s attitude towards entrepreneurship had the strongest effect on their entrepreneurial conviction and intention.
Perceived behaviour control had the greatest influence on entrepreneurial intention among UK students and also positively influenced the other students, as did social norms.
According to Dr Theodosopoulos, the positive effect of social norms points to the role played by a student’s closest networks, such as family and friends and university mentors and classmates.
The impact of skills obtained in university is notable and surpasses in magnitude all the classic theory of perceived behaviour constructs.
Dr Theodosopoulos explains that even though a programme of study may not include explicit training in entrepreneurship, lecturers and support staff who foster the development of employability, social skills, leadership, creativity and critical thinking can still enhance a student’s entrepreneurial intentions.
“A university environment which supports and encourages students to develop subject knowledge, technical competence, enthusiasm, self-assurance and business awareness attributes can foster increased entrepreneurial intentions,” he said.
“The results show that the university environment creates a robust entrepreneurial eco-system, facilitating the transition of students into entrepreneurship.”