Covid-19 has turned global higher education on its head, creating challenges for conventional approaches to curriculum design but providing opportunities for considering new ways of doing things.
Understandably blended and virtually enhanced programme design is at the front of many minds, giving a new lease of life to distance learning. However, one should not ignore new approaches to enhancing the student experience.
With the next phase of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) currently paused there is a useful window to respond to former universities minister – now Lord – Jo Johnson’s challenge to the sector to shape the content of TEF assessment. This may include new ways to assess student engagement, which can feed into TEF. It can also include how higher education providers are meeting the national challenge of including entrepreneurial, or enterprise, education in undergraduate curricula.
While enterprise education is often given considerable attention among pedagogues, less is understood how it practically informs the undergraduate experience or how it is assessed. One of the most compelling definitions of enterprise education is offered by the Quality Assurance Agency: “the process of equipping students (or graduates) with an enhanced capacity to generate ideas and the skills to make them happen.” In general terms, students build this capacity through a combination of in-class, co-curricular, and integrated employment activity, and would form part of that transformational, life-changing potential of the university experience.
Excellence in enterprise
Since its 2017 introduction, TEF metrics have yet to significantly evolve in response to sector needs and student expectations. The Higher Education and Research Act (2017) included a provision for a review of TEF. This independent review, launched by the government in January 2019 and overseen by Shirley Pearce, has yet to formally publish its findings. A planned OfS consultation on the future of the TEF following publication of the review was expected in 2020 and has now been deferred to 2021 – so it is currently uncertain if and when revisions to the TEF will take place.
However, as institutions evolve and the economic and employment contexts in which they operate change, so too must the TEF evaluation criteria. As we take this pause to fashion strategies designed to recover from the Time of Coronavirus, helping students explore as many ways in which they may add value to the economy and create value for other people has never been more critical.
However, the entire university assessment and reward structure/the metrics structure need not rest on the teaching framework. Gary Wood of the University of Sheffield and Princy Johnson of Liverpool John Moores University have examined the capacity of all three domains — the TEF, the Research Excellence Framework and the Knowledge Exchange Framework — for their potential in supporting and privileging institutional investment into enterprise education activity.
They see enterprise skills both at the heart of the REF and a key part of the eight guiding principles of the KEF. In fact, in the QAA’s 2018 guidance document on enterprise and entrepreneurship education, the agency notes “these activities combine to support the delivery of multiple strategies for the sector: teaching and learning; research and impact; and knowledge exchange and engagement. Enterprise and entrepreneurship education is a significant part of the university landscape; its successful delivery is key to the overall success of the sector.”
In addition to serving our students, though, providing access to the entrepreneurial skill set to students is also in service to the role of small business in stimulating national and regional economies.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for approximately 70 per cent of jobs in member nations on average, generating between 50 and 60 per cent of value-added to those economies. In emerging economies, SMEs contribute up to 45 per cent of total employment and 33 per cent of GDP.
Higher education is not averse to major sea changes in approach. Thirty years ago, many top-ranked North American universities thought it novel to expose first year undergraduate students to actual research, as part of a larger, mostly political effort, to marry the teaching and research functions of the university, by making small, research-oriented classes mandatory for first year students. Many UK institutions are substituting out the standard lecture fare for enterprise-related curricula, embedded in faculties across the higher education enterprise, and working with externals to pull it off.
Another consideration is for universities to rethink the traditional span of career services, extending those resources to include courses on how to write a business proposal and how to move and persuade an audience. There are examples of this in practice now, and details are available via Enterprise Educators UK. Some may see this as a return to the classical educational emphasis on rhetoric, albeit with a practical, “real world” focus.
Government, for its part, should consider ways in which the university metrics structure should prioritise or support different models of enterprise education that make regional sense. For example, there is potential in encouraging more partnerships among and between research intensive institutions and universities with more labour market proximate programming, perhaps in collaboration with further education.
There may also be unrealised potential for existing models, such as SetSquared, a university based partnership between the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton, Surrey, to be applied elsewhere. Government can also look to the University of Nottingham’s Ingenuity, a multi-university partnership of 22 that brings together the academy, commercial and third party organisations in service to cultivate the next generation of founders.
The government has made it clear it expects to see greater collaboration across the tertiary education sector and seeking ways to incentivise career-focused educational opportunities. Students understandably need to understand how the skills they gain through higher education will support their lifelong development and achieving their ambitions. The global disruption of Covid-19, for all its challenges, invites new and creative approaches to education – online or otherwise. Entrepreneurial education can represent a key plank in this revolution.