Lecture theatres are empty but online learning and entrepreneurial ideas are thriving. Photo: Michael Coghlan/Flickr

The Covid-19 pandemic has not necessarily shown universities what they should do, but it has certainly shown universities what is possible when the collective latent entrepreneurial capacity of their academics, professional staff and leadership is harnessed.

Over the past decade, the ‘entrepreneurial university’ is a term that has become increasingly prominent, and a badge that all leading institutions aspire to. Entrepreneurial universities expand their focus beyond teaching, research and knowledge transfer to become pivotal actors in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, stimulating and supporting economic and societal activities in their regions.

At the most fundamental level, universities create and transfer knowledge through publication and high quality graduates. A university is regarded as entrepreneurial when its academics are involved in entrepreneurial activities such as intellectual property creation (e.g. patenting, licensing, spinning-off new firms) and external engagement where staff work with industry (e.g. research partnerships, consulting services, industry training) and other external entities such as charities, non-profit organisations – the latter in particular driven by universities’ social entrepreneurship mandate where they work in the public good.

These entrepreneurial activities are complementary to the core business of a university. Entrepreneurial universities have a reputation for impact and innovation. This attracts competitive students and also helps to attract and retain high-performing academics who will bring in funding and undertake world leading research. 

However, there is a question as to whether the true entrepreneurial capacity within these institutions is being realised. Unlocking universities’ entrepreneurial potential is not helped by the bureaucratic organisation of activities they espouse, with standardisation, formalisation and hierarchy often prominent in every corner of university campuses.

Even the aforementioned entrepreneurial activities of research commercialisation and external funding are riddled with bureaucracy. Furthermore, with a growth in competitive league tables among universities globally, there is an unfortunate tendency to centralise decision-making and for management to exercise more control and oversight on all aspects of university performance.

Somewhat lost in recent conversations over Covid-19 around the grand social experiment of remote working is the monumental social entrepreneurship underway in universities worldwide. Universities themselves have had to perform the role of entrepreneur in a way that seemed incomprehensible a matter of months ago.

Pivots, minimal viable products (MVPs), growth mind-sets, effectuation, these are just some of the entrepreneurial concepts and tools university business schools present to budding entrepreneurs in their undergraduate, postgraduate and extracurricular activities. Students are encouraged to embrace failure and to get comfortable with uncertainty. They are taught that excessive planning in the search for perfection and rigour is futile, as the opportunity or market might pass.

Iterations of doing, then learning, are recommended. Experiment early to validate your ideas, listen/observe and adapt quickly with modified versions. Even when something is showing promise along a particular pathway, be open to pivoting your focus to achieve a better product/market fit. Resource constraints are a mere speed bump. There is always a way. We all have something of value we can put to use and/or know others who can strengthen our limited resource base. 

The uptake of these ideas is typically incongruent to the bureaucratic workings of a university and better suited to a start-up environment. Yet in the space of a week, sometimes days, universities have called on the rich and latent entrepreneurial capacity of all academics, professional staff, and leadership to continue operating during government imposed restrictions.

The red tape that so often frustrates idea generation and innovation, and hampers decision speed has largely disappeared. Suggestions and feedback are more welcome and high trust has replaced the low trust and control model. Collegiality overrides competition and there is real sense that these institutions have a challenge and objective that is shared at all levels, thereby giving greater purpose to everyone’s work.

In essence, universities have become a conglomerate of start-up environments, academic freedom and employee intuition have never been so important. 

Just as in industry where operations have been swiftly pivoted towards the production of ventilators, in universities where there is promise or relatable expertise, research agendas have been pivoted towards Covid-19 diagnosis, vaccines and developing personal protection equipment. Indeed, science is increasingly at the forefront of public interest because it has played such a key role in guiding the global response.

Even in other non-health disciplines, where the link to Covid-19 is not so immediately apparent, many academics are pivoting in an effort to close their research-relevance gap. Research expertise across a wide range of areas is providing valuable insights on the social, economic and environmental consequences of what is occurring.

Many universities are in MVP mode with their online teaching. The first week of going online it just had to work. In comparison to campus based delivery, it was far from perfect, there were technical glitches and many other issues were surfaced by staff and, of course, students, the end user market. Each week the product experience improved, as did technical and other forms of service support. New problems emerge daily, but so do opportunities. Universities can now, all of a sudden, more clearly envisage a different future and consider this more objectively rather than be afraid of it.

Staff and students have also upskilled at a rapid pace and in so doing grown in competence. To put things into perspective, in my university, the idea of moving a paper online, changing all assignment formats and doing a remote exam would in all likelihood take over a year to be implemented and involve considerable paperwork, wide consultation and numerous levels of committee inspection. That is one paper, in one department, in one division. In March, in the space of a week, where at all feasible, the entirety of the university’s first semester papers were moved online. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has not necessarily shown universities what they should do, but it has certainly shown universities what is possible. It would be inaccurate to say there is no value in the bureaucratic mechanisms so prominent within universities during more normal times. Robust systems and processes go a very long way to ensuring quality and equity is maintained across all activities within the university business model.

However, it would be remiss not to reflect on what exactly has been achieved when people were liberated and empowered to just act now. The sensible approach would be to re-evaluate the balance and trade-offs between these two extremes. 

Some structure will naturally and sensibly return to how universities operate but if they wish to be truly entrepreneurial they need to find a way for entrepreneurship to thrive when some sense of normality resumes. The achievements to date and opportunities for the future do not just relate to online teaching or remote working. It is the entrepreneurial mind-set that has been awakened in these highly institutionalised environments.

One of the most profound theories in entrepreneurship is effectuation. It suggests the future is unpredictable (as we have all learnt of late), but you can maintain some level of control of this future by actively shaping it through small steps. However, creating our future in this way requires an entrepreneurial mind-set. Through challenging circumstances, universities have collectively taken many small steps in recent weeks and are right now shaping the future of their industry. One of the next significant challenges universities will encounter is how they will embrace, nurture and embed the entrepreneurial mind-set throughout the institution, and not return to type.

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