Entrepreneurship education should be on election agenda

Entrepreneurship is pivotal to addressing Aotearoa’s biggest challenges including lagging productivity, social inequality, healthcare and climate change, say Darsel Keane, Rod McNaughton and Will Charles.

Professor Rod McNaughton
Rod McNaughton is professor of entrepreneurship and director of innovation and professional development, a portfolio encompassing executive education and the university’s entrepreneurship centre, within the University of Auckland School of Business.

Opinion: Entrepreneurship deserves to be centre stage as we head toward the election in October.

While not top of mind for many, entrepreneurship is pivotal to addressing Aotearoa’s biggest challenges, from improving lagging productivity to social inequality, healthcare and confronting climate change. Our nation must transform its economic and social systems, and our rangatahi need an entrepreneurial spirit and the skills to lead the way.

The need for fresh perspectives and creative problem-solving has never been more critical. Yet, we has a significant entrepreneurship gap. The 2021 Global University Entrepreneurship Student Spirit Survey reveals that only seven percent of NZ respondents planned to found a business, starkly contrasting with the global average of 21 percent. Even five years post-graduation, the proportion wanting to be entrepreneurs, 24 percent, lags behind the worldwide average of 38 percent. We also lag behind the global average and often rank near the bottom on many entrepreneurial attitudes and preparedness measures.

The government’s Startup Advisors Council released its Upstart Nation Report earlier this month. One of their primary conclusions is that Aotearoa has the potential to double its number of startups, based on startup rates in similar economies.

Our entrepreneurship gap is substantial and it seems that we are still plagued by tall poppyism and a No. 8 wire mentality, limiting ambition and preventing disruptive ideas from being trialled.

While our country takes pride in its high ease-of-doing-business rating and favourable regulatory environment, successful economies also develop an entrepreneurial culture from an early age.

The European Union, the UK, China and many other countries have implemented frameworks for entrepreneurship (sometimes called ‘enterprise’ education) beginning in schools and required through tertiary education. By integrating entrepreneurship education into the core of our educational system, we can empower future generations with skills that extend beyond conventional classroom boundaries.

Director of the Business School's Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Darsel Keane
Director of the Business School's Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Darsel Keane.

The benefits of entrepreneurship education are manifold. Students immersed in entrepreneurial learning environments cultivate proactive and innovative mindsets, honing problem-solving abilities that transcend textbook theories. Exposure to entrepreneurship from a young age nurtures creativity, adaptability, and resilience, vital qualities in an ever-evolving global economy. Moreover, equipping individuals with entrepreneurial skills enriches their ability to navigate uncertainties and seize opportunities, creating a job-ready workforce that can push boundaries to help solve our most challenging problems.

While offering valuable recommendations for fostering a thriving startup environment, the Upstart Nation and Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways reports largely overlook this essential aspect of cultivating graduates with entrepreneurial competencies and, more broadly, the role of universities in entrepreneurial ecosystems. Universities have spawned many leading tech firms and could do much more if adequately supported to provide entrepreneurship education and support.

The Upstart report does recommend promoting startup career options, including an employment subsidy scheme to support internships, something we badly need, and re-establishing Fellowship Grants for students pursuing a Master’s or PhD with an entrepreneurial pathway. Similarly, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Te Ara Paerangi whitepaper on the future of NZ’s research system recommends training doctoral students and researchers for entrepreneurial occupations in addition to academia.

Will Charles, Executive Director, Investment at UniServices, the University of Auckland’s knowledge mobilisation and investment arm.
Will Charles, Executive Director, Investment at UniServices, the University of Auckland’s knowledge mobilisation and investment arm.

Last week the Global Entrepreneurship Network’s NZ branch (GEN NZ) added its Manifesto to calls for a solution to NZ’s entrepreneurship gap. The Manifesto differs from the Upstart Report and Te Ara Paerangi in making entrepreneurship and innovation central pillars rather than afterthoughts, striking at the heart of the issue. The Manifesto recommends adopting a comprehensive definition of entrepreneurship, fostering entrepreneurial mindsets from early ages, aligning educational initiatives, and assessing teaching impact to create a culture where entrepreneurship is not just a career choice but a way of thinking and approaching challenges.

Duncan Webb, Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and Minister of State Owned Enterprises, when asked to comment on the Manifesto is reported to have said he “thinks the system is quite well set up right now”, pointing to low regulatory thresholds for entering business and tax incentives for research and development. But the ease of doing business and tax incentives, while essential, cannot alone nurture the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that New Zealand requires to face the complex challenges of the future.

In a world of constant change and multifaceted challenges, a robust entrepreneurship education framework would be an investment in our nation’s future. It would prepare our rangatahi to be resilient problem solvers, capable of embracing uncertainties and transforming them into opportunities.

It would foster a culture where innovation is not a buzzword but a way of life. As the GEN NZ manifesto rightly highlights, a society that permeates its education system with entrepreneurship paves the way for a more prosperous and sustainable future—one where an entrepreneurial mindset is not just an advantage but a norm.

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