Universities should be at the core of entrepreneurship: Chief scientist

A report released by Australia's chief scientist says the key to a successful entrepreneurial economy is the close involvement of the country's universities.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Entrepreneurship is a human endeavour and is thus inseparable from education, not independent of it, according to a report released on Friday by Professor Ian Chubb, Australia's chief scientist.

The report, Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Australia: a role for universities, says Australia has one of the highest rates of business creation in the world, but few startups have the capacity to grow beyond the local level.

According to the report [PDF], entrepreneurship is an economic activity that requires attention to the framework conditions for business creation and growth.

"More importantly, it is a human endeavour, requiring attention to the way that our attitudes are shaped, our skills developed, and our networks formed," Chubb said.

According to the chief scientist, forward-looking universities in other countries are the epicentre of vibrant start-up economies; he believes universities should be at the core of building a culture of entrepreneurship in Australia.

"Australians aren't short of talent but we need to get better at turning our creativity into successful products and services," he said. "To be a more innovative country we need to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset at every level of education -- starting in schools, continuing in higher study and enduring throughout working lives."

"In popular culture the entrepreneur is the rogue genius who succeeds without -- or in spite of -- education. And it would be extremely convenient if that were true," Chubb said. "If we cannot teach entrepreneurship, we can only recognise the born entrepreneurs, and get out of their way whilst they get on with the business of change."

The report says entrepreneurship education should not be all about traditional classroom-based education, rather it should focus on giving students opportunities to experience entrepreneurship for themselves, outside of the classroom.

Peter Bradd, CEO of StartupAUS, has welcomed the report by the chief scientist, highlighting that recommendations, such as entrepreneurship programmes in mainstream subjects at universities, harnessing entrepreneurs as role models, and hands-on learning through incubators, accelerators, and overseas placements must become actions in order to make a difference.

"To have any chance of growing a robust startup ecosystem, Australia needs an entrepreneurial mindset as a society, as well as the practical skills to successfully launch and grow businesses with global potential. Australia is currently a long way behind other parts of the world, particularly the US, in this regard," Bradd said.

"At the present time, the Australian education system is geared toward preparing students for the workforce. It does not adequately equip young people to start businesses, particularly high-growth startups."

Bradd said while universities have a vital role to play in educating and cultivating future entrepreneurs, he believes the quality of entrepreneurship education in Australian universities is extremely low.

"This is in part to the fact that most academics teaching entrepreneurship have no first-hand experience in a startup and therefore deliver courses that are heavy on theory and light on applied content," he said.

Earlier this week, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) began work on its ON program, an initiative part of its 2020 Strategy aimed at connecting the CSIRO with the Australian entrepreneurial community.

"The ON program will be key to delivering more breakthrough innovation from CSIRO," Liza Noonan, executive manager innovation and ON program lead said. "One of the first initiatives of ON is a new accelerator for CSIRO concepts with high impact potential."

According to the CSIRO, the accelerator program was born out of the idea that Australia has more than enough talent; it just requires the right environment and support.

Noonan said the accelerator program expects to translate CSIRO science and technology into a positive impact for Australia.

"This program is different from other accelerators out there," she said.

"These are deep tech projects that cross a wide range of industries, from manufacturing to agriculture. Our end goal is to get technology out to market that will address major challenges we face as a nation."

Last month, Minister for Industry, Innovation, and Science Christopher Pyne said the key to Australia's future was productivity growth, driven by innovation. Pyne said Australia has the infrastructure to lead the world in research and innovation, adding he believes the researchers, universities, and institutions like the CSIRO and Questacon have the ability to underpin this.

At the time of Pyne's appointment, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the creation of such a ministerial role highlights how important the government believes it is to invest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, and support startups.

"If we want to remain a prosperous, first-world economy with a generous social welfare safety net, we must be more competitive, we must be more productive. Above all, we must be more innovative," Turnbull said.

"We have to work more agilely, more innovatively, we have to be more nimble in the way we seize the enormous opportunities that are presented to us. We're not seeking to proof ourselves against the future. We are seeking to embrace it."

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has also previously highlighted the importance of STEM education in schools and universities in Australia, pledging a total of AU$2.5 billion for future jobs, with a focus on STEM; as well as a AU$17.8 million startup initiative he hopes will drive a new generation of innovators, risk-takers, and wealth-creators.

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