Time for Entrepreneurship To Be Made Available To All Students in Higher Education

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It would not cause too much debate to suggest that Ireland in the late 1950s was a depressing country. It had suffered greatly from decades of poor economic performance and the constant hemorrhaging of its population through emigration. Overcrowded classrooms, low family incomes and poor physical school structures meant that only 10,000 students took their Leaving Certificate in 1957.

Meanwhile during that decade, third-level education remained the preserve of the elite and a total of just 8,653 students were present in all of Ireland’s third-level institutions by the end of the 1950s. The most popular solution to the ills of the time was for thousands of poorly educated people to sail to England, America, and other destinations in the hope of earning some kind of living.

But the 1960s brought significant change through a reforming Minister for Education (Patrick Hillary, 1959-65). He improved the provision of education and broadened its access. He also initiated a modified scholarship scheme for third-level education and appointed a Commission on Higher Education.

However, arguably the most dramatic change to education policy in Ireland occurred in 1966 when the new Minister for Education (Donogh O’Malley) announced the introduction of free secondary education. Further change happened in the late 1960s with the introduction of third-level student grants which created some shift in the composition of universities with the introduction of young people from the urban middle-classes. Access to third-level institutions was greatly extended in the mid-1990s with the introduction of free third-level education for all full-time students.

In later years, the Enterprise Strategy Group Report (2004) highlighted the contribution that the implementation of these policies offered to Ireland’s economic growth when it stated that: “The fact that the labour supply was, in general, well educated made it particularly attractive to foreign direct investment. In effect, the consistent education policies of the preceding decades were bearing fruit: there was growing demand for educated human capital in all developed countries, and its ready availability in Ireland helped to attract foreign direct investment, and to promote the development of indigenous companies”. Indeed, many commentators would suggest that the education policies introduced in the 1960’s was a significant factor in the birth and maturation of Ireland’s economic success around the turn of the century, a time formerly known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’.

While Ireland’s efforts to create a well educated population that was attractive to foreign employers was highly successful, its attempts to create indigenous entrepreneurs have been less profitable, until this decade. Indeed it has been noted that the role that Irish universities and institutes of technology play in the economic development of the country only became formally recognised relatively recently with the inclusion of clear economic development objectives in their statutes.

The universities, while traditionally recognised for their contribution to learning and research, only took on a formal economic development role at national level during the late 1980s, while the institutes of technology (formerly regional technical colleges) saw their regional economic development role formalised in the 1992 RTC Act. Interestingly, some of the universities and institutes of technology, recognising their inherent economic development function, had already begun to establish industrial liaison and incubation units several years ahead of the formal legislation.

The Report of the Small Business Forum in 2006 stressed the need to reinforce entrepreneurship within the education system across all levels if indigenous enterprise is to flourish in future years. A 2005 GEM Report also argued that the development of entrepreneurship needs to be at the forefront of education, from as early as primary education. This is required in order to foster the creative and entrepreneurial qualities of young people, and encourage a future career in entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately, while a large number of entrepreneurship education initiatives are taking place, the work is highly fragmented and uncoordinated. International reports in recent years have highlighted how entrepreneurship education in Ireland lacks a clear sense of purpose and direction, and urgently requires a synthesized plan that incorporates primary, secondary, and third-level education. A 2012 EU Report stated that “There is no specific national strategy for entrepreneurship education in general education”.

The old days of ‘the sage on the stage’ are well past their sell-by date and what we now need is entrepreneurship education that is a dynamic mix of learning and action.  Third-level educational institutions must also ensure that entrepreneurship is offered across all faculties as it is the Science, Engineering and Technology students that are most likely to possess the highly creative and innovative product and service concepts that are needed for the new economic environment in which Ireland now competes. Everyone needs to get past the enormous misconception that entrepreneurship is purely about the creation of a new business and the generation of wealth for an individual, but instead recognise that it is a state of mind and a way of behaving that can benefit our society in a broad variety of ways.

Everyone in this country is aware that the answers to our economic challenges will not be found overnight and while short and medium-term solutions are being identified, we also need to plan for the longer term. If the changes required in entrepreneurship education are taken into account and implemented, Ireland could indeed see a thriving entrepreneurial culture in the coming years based on sustainable indigenous enterprise and strong ethical behaviour. However, while much has been achieved in recent years, Ireland remains a long way from the cutting-edge of entrepreneurship education in global terms. In 30 years time, will economic reports be looking back on these years as a time of missed opportunity or a time in which visionary leaders planned for our future success?

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About the Author:

Professor Thomas M. Cooney (B.Comm, MBA, PhD, MMII, MCIM, FIMCA)

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