Blog: The importance of embedding entrepreneurship into Higher Education

A look inside BCU's new STEAMhouse building

By Joseph Margetts, Enterprise Manager at Birmingham City University (BCU)


Birmingham City University

Nearly 500,000 university students in the UK either run or plan to create their own business while studying. As more and more students dream of devising their own ventures, and with Covid-19 providing a sea change in the work landscape, it has never been more vital that higher education institutions provide the programmes, facilities and support needed to help students realise their ambitions.

Student entrepreneurship continues to rise

The number of startups from students and graduates is at an all-time high, with a new business born every two hours. Student demand for entrepreneurship has accelerated and there are numerous reasons for this.

Millennials want to shape their own future, creating a better sense of ownership and creating their own end-to-end experience.

Furthermore, work/life balance has become one of the most important ambitions amongst the millennial workforce, with 88 percent of workers outlining this as a key desire. Being in control of a business can allow for people to find that sweet spot.

This trend will only amplify as we see more representatives of Generation Z enter the workplace. According to a recent survey, 62 percent of Gen Zers have already started or intend to start their own business. They foster the same desires as millennials but have the technological exposure and skills to go from idea to launch much quicker.

You would have perhaps thought that the Covid-19 pandemic would have stalled the student entrepreneurship boom, somewhat. Not at all. In fact, it only increased young people’s ambitions to go it alone.

A survey from Santander UK revealed that despite Covid-19 presenting a riskier prospect than usual, 33 percent of students still want to launch their own business and 24 percent state they are not worried about the post-Covid business landscape.

Birmingham continues to lead the way for new businesses. It has been crowned the UK’s regional startup capital for seven years in a row. The Covid-19 pandemic did nothing to dampen this – in fact, there was rapid growth, with a 48 percent uplift in business formation during the latter period of 2020 and early part of 2021.

Creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem for the region

At BCU, we are located in the heart of an entrepreneurial city and we take our role as a provider of transformation for the region very seriously.

Our mission is to be the University for Birmingham, working closely with all parts of our city and region to ensure that BCU plays an active role in facilitating growth, innovation and productivity.

With SMEs and entrepreneurs providing the backbone for Birmingham, we continue to work hard to ensure current and future business owners have the support they need to make a positive economic and creative contribution to the region.

We have cultivated our own ecosystem comprising of important stakeholders, businesses, academics and facilities.

We partner with all key stakeholders from the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership Growth Hub, the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, local authorities and other growth supportive networks.

Our innovation centre, STEAMhouse, offers designated incubation space, business accelerator, co-working and fully equipped production spaces and a challenge lab.

Since starting this journey, our STEAM work has:

  • Created 65 new enterprises, who have constructed 75 new products.
  • Forged 27 linkages globally, including a new innovation centre in India.
  • Formed a connecting group of academics, as well as STEAM fellowships for academics and STEAM degrees for PhD students.
  • Won and been nominated for a number of accolades, including Times Higher Education Awards.

Our online business portal, BCU Advantage, has assisted businesses in Birmingham of all sizes to start, grow and innovate through a broad range of products and services. One such programme is Higher Level Skills Match (HLSM), part-funded by the European Social Fund, which has worked in partnership with 560 businesses to place students and graduates into placements and appropriate-level job roles.

The Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI), which collects financial and output data related to knowledge exchange, has placed us in the top 20 in the UK for skills, enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Providing the tools and support for entrepreneurial success

Students looking to develop their own business often have the same needs and concerns – namely, a lack of support, facilities and access to funding.

We strive to ensure that no matter what levels of ambitions our students have, they can access all of the above and be provided with a springboard to long-term success and sustainability.

To meet this demand, BCU has launched the STEAMhouse Pre-Incubator, an entrepreneurship and enterprise space for students and graduates. The facility has been mapped out to provide support at every stage of the journey, from the moment a student begins their first year until after they graduate.

First and second-year students will have access to hands-on workshops, enterprise programmes, tailored advice and the Pre-Incubator’s facilities.

They will then, upon reaching the third year of study, be able to hot desk, attend various events, network with professionals and gain key guidance from our business support experts.

The facility boasts a mentor-in-residence in David Mellor, with over 30 years of experience, who is on hand to offer insight to students visiting the facility, regardless of what stage they are at in their entrepreneurial journey.

Within the Pre-Incubator is a suite of a programmes designed to build knowledge, confidence and networks, and equip participants with the attributes every entrepreneur needs:

  • STEAM Hatchery – A ten-week boot camp in which eligible participants create and cultivate a business plan with the help of expert mentors from all aspects of business, workshops, access to great facilities and taught sessions. The finalists receive a cash prize, a space in our Pre-Incubator and a furnished business plan that they can use to launch their venture.
  • The Birmingham Skills for Enterprise and Employability Network (BSEEN), which offers students and graduates a package of intensive startup support for new ventures.

International students and graduates with a viable, scalable business idea also have the opportunity to be awarded a Startup Visa from the Pre-Incubator, which would allow them to stay or return to the UK for up to two years to set up and run a business.

Key to the success of the Hatchery was regular interaction with the mentors. Having that real-world experience brought powerful examples that really helped bring the course content to life and helped students to absorb the information.

We welcome a fail smart approach, where participants were nurtured and encouraged to learn from their experiences and come away stronger, wiser and more ready to succeed.

Lean startup methodology is applied to our teaching content to ensure our Hatchery entrepreneurs are moving their concepts through the ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ feedback loop and their concepts are validated.

Students and graduates involved with the above programmes and services can progress to receiving support at the STEAMhouse Business Incubator and Accelerator, a hub for startups that will nurture their businesses through mentoring, access to funding, workstations, meeting rooms and more.

We have also embedded this STEAM approach – of bringing together people with different knowledge and approaches to solving problems – into our curriculum.

Students enjoy industry-inspired, project-led learning, teaching and assessment, where people learn around doing a project that is interdisciplinary in nature and solves a real-life problem.

This exposes our students to the knowledge, networks and skills needed to go out into the region and contribute with the skills and drive of an entrepreneur, ensuring we have creative, problem-solving graduates with an innovative spirit.

We are committed to igniting future entrepreneurs and bringing to industry an entrepreneurial mindset. As more and more of today’s students seek the support needed to create their own businesses, it’s vital that universities adapt and provide the guidance needed.

Find out more about our entrepreneurship support programmes STEAM Hatchery and the STEAMhouse Pre-Incubator.

This article is also featured on University Business

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