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Why FE needs to collaborate to help students set up businesses

Kallum Russell, award-winning business owner and founder of UNpreneur

Colleges have a vital role in helping graduates demonstrate an entrepreneurial mindset 

As the economy rebuilds, colleges have a vital role in helping graduates demonstrate an entrepreneurial mindset, so they can create new businesses and jobs.

Since my business was founded in 2017, our team has been supporting students and graduates who are serious about starting a business. We’ve worked with a variety of colleges and universities across the UK and overseas, including managing the Incubator at Edinburgh Business School, running workshops on marketing, leadership and negotiation skills, and staff training for careers teams to develop their delivery with learners.

In these uncertain times, colleges are having to cope with increased demand and fewer resources in a blended learning environment. Many students will not work in an ordinary job in a few years’ time. It is almost inevitable that they will work on projects. Employers are increasingly looking for an entrepreneurial (“UNpreneurial!”) mindset that sees opportunities rather than challenges. 

Businesses tell us there is a gap between the skills students have and what’s required. Technology has been a big driver for this; from digital marketing to web development, data analysis to coding, few courses provide students with the core skills to understand business. Students enter the workforce with little understanding of budgets, accounts, marketing, sales – the core drivers of business. Companies then have to invest in the staff to get them to the required level to contribute meaningfully. Having students who understand the core elements of running a business makes them more employable.

Soft skills, enthusiasm, passion, energy, positive attitude and strong social skills are all in high demand 

And in terms of soft skills, enthusiasm, passion, energy, positive attitude and strong social skills are all in high demand as the majority of these are hard to teach. The pandemic has meant reduced face-to-face interactions, so we are finding a lot of students haven’t been able to engage with each other or work together on projects as much as before. That’s why we make our sessions interactive with lots of student participation.

Frustratingly, many colleges and universities facing financial challenges look to reduce costs by squeezing what doesn’t appear to generate revenue. We’ve heard that many are considering cutting their enterprise provision. This is the department or team responsible for delivering the enterprise and entrepreneurship training and activities to students and graduates. Yet we know that there is an increase in students and graduates seeking advice on starting a business. It makes no sense to choke these teams’ ability to cope. But where funding is stretched, UNpreneur can help meet these needs effectively and efficiently.

University of Buckingham business students must set up and run a business to be eligible to graduate 

A really positive example of the right approach is University of Buckingham (UB), who insist that business students must set up and run a business to be eligible to graduate. UNpreneur is currently adding value to this, and the other existing enterprise initiatives at UB, by delivering fortnightly business seminars, on an extra-curricular basis, and hosting 1-2-1s – “Impact Mentoring” – with students who have started or wish to launch their own business. These Impact Mentoring sessions identify and support the learner’s specific business and individual needs.

Enterprise provision across the UK is incredibly variable. Some institutions we’ve engaged with have departments comprising tens of people to support their students. Others have a small team who work on these activities as part of a wider remit. We find sharing this information helps them understand how they compare. In today’s environment, having a well-regarded enterprise offering could give an institution a real competition edge.

Some teams are lucky and have members of staff or alumni with business backgrounds who are available to advise on the challenges of starting up. Putting relatable business owners in front of students to inspire them is one of the ways UNpreneur can help. Often the biggest barrier to starting is the student/graduate mindset that they are not ready. Having someone from a similar background to them, someone they can relate to and aspire to become, is very powerful.

A combined effort is much more efficient

There is also a patchwork of information. We’ve seen several FE institutes that have Enterprise resources in different departments, and these bodies are in silos that don’t speak to each other, share resources or work cohesively for the benefit of the students.

Rather than having support sessions developed at the same time by multiple institutions, a combined effort would be much more efficient. It would free up the Student Enterprise teams to deliver more 1-2-1 time with their student business owners, which is where they can add more value.

Our experience of working across different institutions shows there is huge potential. The 6-week Inter-University Startup Bootcamp UNpreneur ran with Sheffield Hallam University, and 7 other Universities across the UK, was a great success. And we have opened registrations for Bootcamp 2022 at the International Enterprise Educators Conference (IEEC), run by Enterprise Educators UK.

The role of graduates in creating new businesses is of huge importance as our economy rebuilds. By working together, the further and higher education sectors can equip young people with the skills and mindsets required for success. I’m proud of the collaboration our team has helped encourage over the last four years and we’re ready to do even more.

Kallum Russell, award-winning business owner and founder of UNpreneur, which provides straight-talking business advice to students and college staff.

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