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16 May 2023

The rise of entrepreneurship and innovation in HE: A case study of the 'With Proficiency in Entrepreneurship' pathway at the University of Exeter


Raphael Dennett

Director, ‘With Proficiency in Entrepreneurship’ Pathway; Deputy Director, Centre for Entrepreneurship, University of Exeter

In 2019 the University of Exeter launched an innovative undergraduate pathway which aimed to open the study of entrepreneurship and innovation to students from a wider range of discipline groups.

The ‘With Proficiency in Entrepreneurship’ pathway enabled students to select from a handful of entrepreneurship and innovation modules in their optional module choices each year. Those who selected the required number of these modules by the completion of their degree were awarded the additional title, ‘With Proficiency in Entrepreneurship’. The pathway initially gained interest from mostly business school students and received positive feedback from the students who had started the pathway. What happened next, no one was expecting!

Prepared for every future

By 2020, the pathway had grown to more than 1,000 students and these undergraduates were joining from a more diverse range of discipline groups, despite very little promotion of the pathway. Students were asking questions about their future career journeys and were seeing the value of entrepreneurship and innovation in a much broader way. As uncertainty grows in almost every industry, with increased disruption and an ever-accelerating rate of change, students are identifying that whatever their future career journey, their path is unlikely to be linear and traditional. They sense that they will need to not only find new paths to success via much more unpredictable career steps, but they will also likely be called upon to be change agents and leaders of positive innovation in every role they embark on. They are constantly hearing that in a few years, they will all be in job roles that don’t exist yet and that they will need to re-skill every few years. These students have identified that many of the skills and competencies of entrepreneurship and innovation are advantageous in this uncertain career landscape, even if they don’t directly aspire to launch a new venture.

A new focus on impact

While this growth was emerging, the Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter implemented a new strategy and focus for entrepreneurship and innovation which looked at value creation and impact in a much broader sense. As the pressure increases for value creation in business to have a more balanced emphasis beyond profit, and more organisations and industries are held to account for their environmental and social value impact alongside their economic impact, value creators are being forced to look at all value creation in more holistic terms.

The Centre for Entrepreneurship seeks to emphasise the development and application of an entrepreneurial mindset and a range of innovation competencies as equipment for impact creation, in any professional setting. This focus on environmental, social and economic value creation and impact has been reported by students as one of the key reasons that the ‘With Proficiency in Entrepreneurship’ pathway has resonated so strongly with their individual futures. For them, entrepreneurship and innovation is about pursuing opportunities and creating broad value in as many ways as they can, and venture creation, intrapreneurship, social action and other forms of entrepreneurial action are simply different approaches that they may end up using at different points of their entrepreneurial journey.

Where next?

As the ‘With Proficiency in Entrepreneurship’ pathway passes over 2,500 students per year at the University of Exeter, with over a third of these students from non-business-related subjects, there are no plans to slow down. Rather, the emphasis on the power of entrepreneurship and innovation to drive and lead environmental, social and economic value creation and impact has been written into the 2030 University strategy. We are adding more modules to give students more options that speak to their chosen futures and supporting students to take what they have learned and apply it in real-world action with a wide range of extra-curricular programmes, from venture creation and intrapreneurial knowledge exchange programmes to environmental consultancy. 

It is clear that students are aware of the shifting and challenging future of work that lies ahead of them. They are hungry to not just survive but rather launch forward with great ambition to lead the change they want to see in every workplace and every industry, while being active responsible value creators. It is our responsibility as higher education providers to make sure that we equip them for this great unknown.

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