A fire has been lit under entrepreneurialism in Scotland recently, stemming from big strategy and policy developments. This is driven by a growing focus in our higher education institutions (HEIs) towards economic development and the societal impact of our teaching and research.

Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET, March 2022) outlined Entrepreneurial People and Culture as one of its core programmes, with a recommendation to “embed first rate entrepreneurial learning across the education and skills systems”.

To drive action from this Strategy, the Government appointed Mark Logan (former COO of Skyscanner) as Scotland’s Chief Entrepreneur in July 2022. He has led a small team to analyse entrepreneurial ecosystems across the world, aiming to take an informed approach to influence Scotland’s own ecosystem. One of the team’s deliverables, the Entrepreneurial Campus (EC) paper, will be published by Scottish Government in the coming days. However, it has already been shared and discussed fairly widely within Scotland’s universities and colleges.

Amplifying opportunity

 The EC paper identifies ten components of a “world-class entrepreneurial campus” that Scotland’s HE and FE institutions should adopt, recognising that institutions vary in terms of their start points and ambitions. Many of the themes are easy to endorse, and pertinent initiatives already exist, such as:

  • Theme 1: Align and interact with your regional ecosystem and external partners to accelerate:

An example of this is ONE BioHub: for life sciences start-ups and high growth enterprises – a partnership between Opportunity North East, the University of Aberdeen and NHS Grampian, and the Aberdeen City Region Deal.

  • Theme 3: Establish institutional policies that support the development of an entrepreneurial mindset in students and staff:

Strathclyde Inspire is a good illustration: an ambitious programme to support and encourage entrepreneurship in all its forms at the University of Strathclyde.

  • Theme 7: Develop support for academic/staff spinouts:

Converge demonstrates this theme: a collaborative endeavour across Scotland’s universities that helps uncover emerging spinouts and start-ups, acting as a catalyst to accelerate the creation of innovative products and services. Converge is open to students, graduates and staff, providing intensive business training, networking, one-to-one support, cash prizes and professional advice from experts in industry.

You can parachute into any HEI in Scotland and identify good examples of entrepreneurial practices and opportunities. However, the big questions are:

  • How do we amplify this activity?
  • How can we work more effectively between institutional silos?
  • How can we learn from each other, and adopt and deliver initiatives that can impact every student, staff member, or alumni, from every geography and every socioeconomic background?

This is particularly challenging in an increasingly complex environment, with ever constrained resources. Scottish Funding Council’s knowledge exchange and innovation funding (UIF) has been cash flat for a number of years and is significantly lower than equivalent funding to England’s HEIs through HEIF. Recognising this disparity, and the weight of opportunity under an emerging Entrepreneurial Campus strategy, a £5.5 million uplift to research and innovation funding for the academic year 2023/24 will be put to UIF. Institutions will be required to report on how they use the extra resource to support their Entrepreneurial Campuses and other key priorities under NSET and the Scottish Government’s Innovation Strategy (June 2023).  However, to gain the greatest impact at a national level from this uplift we need to look carefully at how it is deployed.

Thinking creatively and collaboratively

We have an excellent culture for collaboration across Scotland’s research and innovation landscape. This is often exemplified by the research pools and innovation centres, and through less well publicised committees and peer networks, including the Research Commercialisation Directors’ Group, Enterprise Support Group, and the IP Commercialisation Peer Network. Given our connectedness, we are well-placed to join forces to respond collectively to the opportunities around our Entrepreneurial Campuses.

The increase in UIF funding for the next academic year, although extremely welcome, will only go so far to move the dial on entrepreneurialism in our institutions. Specifically, the £5.5 million is designated for knowledge exchange and innovation; it won’t touch on undergraduate curriculum, international student recruitment or the development of alumni networks, for example. There are a myriad of recommendations within the EC paper that will require individuals from across our institutions to take proper ownership of our Entrepreneurial Campus ambition. Learning and Teaching, Student Unions, Careers and Alumni, and Research Support, among others, will be needed to help define what it means for them in their context, and to identify appropriate means of resourcing and delivery.

If the sector is going to make a real success of our Entrepreneurial Campuses, we need to have an honest and critical look at how we incentivise and influence entrepreneurial culture across the spectrum. We need to think more creatively about how we inspire our students, staff and wider community to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. To move Entrepreneurial Campus beyond standalone initiatives or transactional relationships, we require a real culture change.