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Entrepreneurship education should focus on practical hands-on learning
Author :  Lü Xingqun Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2017-02-07
Students from the Hebei Academy of Fine Arts make pottery for sale in the school’s startup incubator.
There is no textbook for starting up a new venture, but entrepreneurship is something one can study. Though the Chinese government currently has pledged to encourage innovation and support startup business, few college students are willing to test the waters, and success is rare. Therefore, a discussion on promoting student startups is necessary.
However, much of the learning that takes place within an entrepreneurial context is experiential in nature, thus it is a hard thing to teach in class. As Becky Reuber, a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto, pointed out, entrepreneurial knowledge is absorbed from practice, which sets it apart from general knowledge. Diamanto Politis, a professor of entrepreneurship at Lund University, also stated that different past experiences of entrepreneurs are vital to the success of their businesses, while past experience and practice are in reality the main source of practical knowledge. To say the least, acquiring practical knowledge is crucial for college students before they head off into the real world.
Studies have suggested that entrepreneurial learning can help students acquire practical knowledge. In the process of entrepreneurial learning, there are three main components: career experience, such as preparation for entrepreneurship as well as management and business selection experience; the transformation process, meaning observing, copying and restructuring other people’s behavior in search for a personal inspiration; entrepreneurial knowledge needed to recognize and act on entrepreneurial opportunities as well as cope with the liabilities of innovation, or to put what students have learned into practice in order to understand the process of starting up a new venture.
As much progress as China has made in entrepreneurship education, it still lags behind other countries, especially the United States, which is far ahead of other regions in terms of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship education. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2015/16 report, China ranked 43rd in entrepreneurial education scoring 2.59, and falling below the average score of 3.1 on a scale of 1 to 9. Therefore, it is reasonable to assess the state of China’s entrepreneurship education by comparing it with the developments in the United States.
Entrepreneurship education has established itself as a mature field of study in the United States for quite some time. American institutions offer degrees in entrepreneurship education at bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Accordingly, they have created comprehensive curricula for entrepreneurship education majors that consist of courses touching on each aspect of entrepreneurship, covering entrepreneurial mindsets, knowledge, capacities and practice.
Through case studies, exploratory programs, consultations and internships, American universities are able to provide a comprehensive experience for students to encourage further development of entrepreneurial skills.
Furthermore, institutions in the United States employ full-time faculty who are exclusively committed to entrepreneurship education, although there is a high percentage of adjunct faculty, such as non-tenure-track and part-time lecturers, teaching entrepreneurship, even in some of the most renowned business schools in America.
For example, Babson College has a dedicated team of teachers who either have entrepreneurial experience or are closely associated with the business circle. Stanford University also has close ties to a range of enterprises, with some teachers serving on the board of directors in local businesses. As a result, teachers can not only lecture students about theoretical knowledge but, more importantly, guide students in practice based on their own experience. They can also offer students a platform to start up their ventures.
Entrepreneurship education has gradually developed a complete ecosystem that is primarily characterized by mature entrepreneurial social networks. Stanford University, for example, encourages communication between campus communities and startups. Through long-term development, it has created a unique alumni network and nurtured a large crowd of successful entrepreneurs, who can in turn help promote entrepreneurship education on campus, thus forming an efficient and sustainable ecosystem.
Status quo in China
In August 2012, the Ministry of Education made “basics of entrepreneurship” a required subject for all college students. However, compared to the US, entrepreneurship in China tends to be offered in stand-alone courses rather than being integrated into the content of courses in other departments or disciplines.
Entrepreneurship courses typically begin with a definition and conceptual explanation of entrepreneurship and move on to the fundamental skills of starting a business—generating an idea, analyzing the market, finding the capital, and following the management and accounting procedures for running a business.
In recent years, entrepreneurship education has become increasingly popular. More extracurricular activities, such as entrepreneurship clubs, lectures, speakers, workshops, seminars, business plan competitions, internships and venture incubators are available in higher education institutions.
For instance, Tsinghua University proposed the model of “Innovation Loop” to carry out entrepreneurship education. Specifically, the loop emphasizes a benign interaction among innovation awareness, practice and outcome, with a support system in place to offer financial and consulting support.
However, as a whole, Chinese college students need to enhance their entrepreneurial learning on all fronts. Entrepreneurship education in colleges and universities in China should also improve in two major aspects.
First, the majority of the entrepreneurship professors in China are from traditional disciplines, such as economics or business administration, which reflects longstanding policies and practices. It is evident that China needs to invest in the training and development of entrepreneurship professors and researchers. Also, most professors do not have hands-on experience in startups or management, making it hard for them to offer students concrete and effective advice. Hence, the shortage of capable faculty remains a pressing issue for China’s entrepreneurship education.
Second, in terms of ecosystem, entrepreneurship education in China has not formed a benign cyclical mechanism of “entrepreneurial learning—starting up ventures— business success” as well as survivalof-the-fittest incentives.
From the perspective of experiential learning, practical learning is to a large extent dependent on one’s own experience. However, most college students in China lack experience in entrepreneurship, business management and industry before they enroll in entrepreneurship classes.
In the context of economic globalization, the knowledge economy and the Internet era, Chinese higher education institutions should apply a broader definition of entrepreneurship so that higher education institutions will no longer equate engagement in entrepreneurship only with business ventures, and offer incentives to expand the entrepreneurial spirit across the institution.
In the meantime, higher education institutions should actively develop appropriate incentives, such as awarding credit to encourage students to participate in a variety of entrepreneurial activities and gain startup experience.
In addition, owing to the entrepreneurial cultural differences in northern and southern China, the government should launch a national strategy to call for the active involvement of all of the stakeholders, including both the public and private sector.
Traditionally, the northern region, especially Northeast China, is dominated by state-run enterprises, whereas the private sector is relatively weak. Therefore, the public is more keen on working in established businesses and reluctant to embark on adventurous entrepreneurship. In contrast, southern China, in particular in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, the private business atmosphere prevails.
Taking such a difference as an advantage, higher education institutions should strengthen communication and cooperation to pool wisdom and get a fresh perspective using efficient and convenient new media, such as WeChat, weibo and webcasts, since students are from various backgrounds and majors.
Teachers are in a key position to facilitate the acquisition of practical knowledge. As a consequence, it is vital to provide intensive training to teachers in entrepreneurship programs, and increase funding to support teacher training, curriculum development and professional development.
In 2016, the State Council issued policies to allow scientists and researchers to take part-time jobs in enterprises to convert their discoveries into products, and they may temporarily leave their posts to start their own businesses. It also rolled out incentives for faculty members to venture into the business world.
Higher education institutions may also try hiring guest lecturers who have first-hand experience starting new businesses to equip students with practical tips as they try their hand at entrepreneurship.
Finally, since practical knowledge is often learned in the process of entrepreneurial experience, higher education institutions should encourage students, graduates and researchers with commercially viable business ideas to develop them into enterprises, and provide an effective support infrastructure within the institution, such as incubators, financing and mentorship.
In this light, it will have a farreaching impact if society can develop strong partnerships among higher education institutions, businesses, and other community organizations so that business leaders can serve as adjunct professors, mentors, coaches and speakers, and involve students directly in enterprise projects.
Lü Xingqun is from the School of Entrepreneurship Education at Heilongjiang University.