Entrepreneurship has become an important focus area at Danish universities and more and more students gain broad entrepreneurship and innovation competences which do not necessarily rhyme with startups and growth adventures. The aim is “for the students to be able to see their field of study of expertise in a broader perspective. “
Over the last few decades, entrepreneurship and innovation have become more and more important. This has also been felt in the education system where an increased focus on these topics is expected in order to ensure that society – across the private and the public sector – can benefit from an innovative and enterprising workforce. For entrepreneurship is not necessarily to start a business or invent a new product. It is the ability to discover, assess and exploit new opportunities – a way of thinking and working that as many people as possible should master if we are to solve the major societal challenges we are facing.
“In Denmark, we are dependent on innovation and the ability to spot a good idea. If we succeed with nuancing the understanding of entrepreneurship in the education system, supporting the value of entrepreneurial competences in a broader sense, there is a huge potential for development in both the public sector and the existing business community. It will help us solve some of the major societal challenges of today. We need more startup activities and entrepreneurship across the board,” says Emilie Normann, Head of Research, Analysis and Higher Education at the Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship.
The Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship is a private business foundation financed primarily by a partnership between the Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs, the Ministry of Children and Education, the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, and the Ministry of Culture with the purpose of strengthening competences in innovation, entrepreneurship and self-employment throughout the education system.
The ambition is for innovation and entrepreneurship to become a natural part of teaching at all levels of education. And ensuring the ability of all pupils and students to think innovatively, see opportunities and translate ideas into value, requires a broader understanding of entrepreneurship as a whole, Normann believes.
“One of our main tasks is to provide a nuanced insight into what entrepreneurship is. It is a lot of things and does not necessarily involve founding a startup. We aim to produce graduates who can create value and change across the board. It is quite possible to innovate, launch new initiatives or do things in a smarter way within an already established framework and still have a positive effect on society. You don’t need to establish and register your own company to do that,” Normann says.
This point resonates with the Danish universities. In the university year 2019/2020, approximately 48,000 students, across all higher education institutions in Denmark, received entrepreneurship education through nearly 1,100 different courses on the subject. In 2010/2011, this figure was 18,100 students. This development means that more and more graduates will be able to put their fields of study into play in new ways.
“A student of geography who works intelligently with data can create value in collaboration with stakeholders outside his or her field of study. It’s very much about being able to see your field or expertise in a broader context. And this is one of the competences we are trying to help universities promote,” Normann says.
UCPH students learn the method behind innovation
According to the UCPH’s (University of Copenhagen) own figures, 300 new companies originate from their three locations in Copenhagen each year. But it’s important that the UCPH students acquire competences that go beyond establishing a specific company or product if they are to contribute positively to the society of the future. They need to understand the whole methodology of working with big challenges and solutions, the teachers of entrepreneurship at UCPH Science say.
“At UCPH, we always work problem-oriented based on major societal challenges – everything from climate and fossil fuels to food waste and plastic in the oceans. This is the breeding ground for what the students work with for the rest of the semester. We always start by saying that if you already have a ready-made solution in mind, you must forget about it. Because the purpose of the course is not getting ready to establish a startup. The purpose is to learn about the elements of an innovation process. A way of thinking,” says Teis Hansen, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the university.
“It is mostly about facilitating a process. Throughout the course, the students combine reading academic texts within their field of study with learning how to work problem-oriented rather than solution-oriented. The academic approach is never totally abandoned in favour of a more practical approach, ” the teachers say.
“Overall, we work from the old saying that if you have an hour to solve a problem, you should spend 55 minutes understanding the problem and 5 minutes solving it. Consequently, we are trying to improve the competences of students in areas such as data collection and problem formulation, identification and understanding,” says Teis Hansen.
This approach enables students to create value across sectors, fields and businesses. Also outside the startup ecosystem.
“Innovation and entrepreneurship are at least as important outside the startup world. We emphasise the fact that entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily associated with a monetary value. Users aren’t necessarily customers but may as well be citizens of a municipality or employees of a large company. In the public sector, for example, it is just as important to ask: “How could this service be provided in a different way?” says Ghita Dragsdahl Lauritzen, PhD and Assistant Professor at UCPH Science, specializing in innovation and cross-sectoral partnerships.
From soft skills to hard value
At Roskilde University (RUC), the entrepreneurship programme is based on their hallmark pedagogical model called Problem-oriented Project Learning (PPL), which values group and project work, participant control and interdisciplinarity, says Araceli Bjarklev, who is responsible the RUC Entrepreneurship Lab.
“At RUC it is possible to work project-based in all semesters, and the students have the opportunity to cooperate with the business community on specific projects which they may, for instance, find in our project bank where companies in search of a solution to a challenge register.”
“We see ourselves as part of an ecosystem. As soon as startups from other hubs in the ecosystem grow a little larger, they experience scaling challenges, and these challenges become collaborative projects for the students at RUC. The companies often have the necessary technical skills but lack everything from a communications strategy, building a product community and user involvement to a sustainability strategy (including regulations, planning and implementation),” says Araceli Bjarklev.
Projects and cooperation have high priority. Every semester, RUC hosts a so-called innovation camp where, based on project descriptions, companies are matched with students or researchers. Since the initiative was launched in 2020, 400 students have participated and a total of 50 collaborative projects have been initiated. The students may integrate a collaborative project into their studies as a module of up to 15 ECTS points.
The University houses a centre for social entrepreneurship (Centret for Socialt Entreprenørskab) and offers a master’s programme within the same field. And the intersection of hard data and soft skills is one of RUC’s great strengths. “The many humanities and social studies students understand that innovation is not just about the invention of a new robot or pill”, Bjarklev says.
“We encourage our students to become self-employed entrepreneurs, but also know that many of our students have soft skills which are extremely useful for innovation within existing frameworks or partnerships; to develop new models, new theories or new ways of collaborating across different sectors. Mastering the interdisciplinary approach is becoming more and more valuable as socio-economic solutions are gaining momentum, ” Bjarklev says.
This article is a part of the magazine ‘From University to Unicorn 2021’. You can read the full magazine here.