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From classroom to ‘clashroom’: how entrepreneurship education is transforming regional development in China

BritCham / CBBC
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By Simon Stewart
Director, Education, Training & Talent (China)
China-Britain Business Council

Entrepreneurship education (EE) has been a pillar of academic and economic development in the UK since the 1980s and has resulted in a record number of self-employed workers – 4.6 million in 2016, or 15 per cent of the workforce. China, too, understands the role that education, innovation and entrepreneurship have to play in producing skilled business people, innovative commercial ideas and faster regional development. For it to maximise this potential, however, China requires a strategy that not only incorporates EE at an institutional level, but also embeds the concept of ‘mass innovation and entrepreneurship’ into regional development strategies.
‘Record numbers of self-employed (4.6m) – an increase of 800,000 since 2008’
‘There are currently 1.49m self-employed women … a third of the total’
UK Business Innovation & Skills Report (Feb 2016)
On 10 March, the China-Britain Business Council, the British Embassy, Tianjin Municipal Education Commission, Enterprise Educators UK (EEUK) and Nankai University held a high-level forum in Tianjin, one of China’s four provincial-level municipalities, on developing a strategy for entrepreneurship education in British and Chinese universities which can accelerate learning, innovation and regional development.
China and the UK are developing EE standards and practices to ensure consistency within educational institutions and to promote growth in regional cities in both countries. Whilst the advantages are clear, shifting mindsets towards a more EE-centred approach takes time and there is still much work to do to create consistent high standards across all institutions and regions.
Embedding EE in the curriculum
The Tianjin forum showed the desire among universities to instil an EE-focused mindset. There is strong government support in both countries and, in the best institutions, EE is no longer the preserve of the business school but is woven into curricula across all disciplines.  
‘All university students should have access to enterprise and entrepreneurship … it should extend to all areas of faculty from Archaeology to Zoology’
Lord Young, ‘Enterprise for All’ (2014)
The result of this strategy is evident in the incubator at Tianjin’s prestigious Nankai University, for example, where student teams from business, fine arts, chemistry and technology backgrounds have created small, profitable businesses. Social entrepreneurship is also evident at Nankai, whose students harness their skills to help local farmers market their products. Such tangible results can only be achieved through a clear EE strategy supported by government, driven by the university leadership, embraced by the faculty, and supported by practical extracurricular activities.
Into the ‘clashroom’: learning by doing
A consistent theme throughout the discussions was that of learning by doing. Zhang Yuli, dean of the Business School of Nankai University, discussed the transformation of the traditional classroom, in which students take notes and learn by rote, into a new ‘clashroom’ which promotes group learning. The emphasis on engaging with mentors and businesses gives students exposure to life outside the university and equips them for future entrepreneurial pursuits. This is an important factor in China’s educational future. 
Meanwhile in the UK, ‘immersive’ EE courses are now being developed that further shift the emphasis from classroom-based education to a blend of curricular and co-curricular activities by encouraging students to develop start-ups during a gap year. This practical experience enables the students to complement what they learn in the classroom with real business experience and self-learning.
Bridging entrepreneurship and innovation
Professor Dai Yuwei, dean of Tianjin Light Industry Vocational Technical College, described how combining core EE modules with practical guidance, incubator facilities and engagement with local businesses can produce student enterprises with innovative ideas. His college’s focus on practical new-energy solutions has given rise to innovations including photovoltaic charging devices for light vehicles. 
Paula Whitehouse, director of the Aston Centre for Growth, an incubator for Aston, Birmingham and Birmingham City Universities, talked about its strong pedigree in tech-based ventures that have developed and remained in the region. The centre’s initiatives include ‘growth vouchers’, EU support, Goldman Sachs’s ‘10,000 Small Businesses’ programme and collaboration with NatWest bank, which are helping startups grow into small businesses with a solid platform for growth.
Karen Bill, chair of EEUK, also spoke to emphasise her organisation’s role in increasing the scale, scope and effectiveness of enterprise and entrepreneurship education in the UK and worldwide. EEUK represents around a hundred UK universities.
The new landscape
The education landscape is changing in the UK and China and the lines between academia and business are becoming more blurred. The development of a strong network of stakeholders is becoming an indispensable part of the work of EE educators. Government policymakers, educators, businesses, venture capitalists, banks, interest groups and NGOs are now inextricably linked. And it is no longer just educators reaching out to businesses. Driven by demand to constantly innovate and bring new ideas to market, companies are engaging with entrepreneurial universities to leverage their human and physical capital.  
Universities that can demonstrate an EE mindset, a commitment to practical learning and a support system for new innovative ideas are gaining support both from governments, as they formulate regional growth plans, and from companies, as they develop new products for market.
Conclusion: why should the UK and China work together on EE? 
Speaking in Tianjin, Jeff Astle, executive director of CBBC, noted the emphasis that President Xi Jinping put on visiting three educational institutions during his state visit to the UK. Businesses should recognise this as an opportunity to forge closer relations. 
Chinese universities and companies can benefit from the UK’s pedigree in education, including the willingness to challenge traditional teaching methods. Continued dialogue between British and Chinese organisations can help them set down guidelines to be applied in Chinese universities.
UK institutions will also benefit. The rate of development and innovation in China, especially in internet technologies, is considerable and presents an excellent opportunity for the UK to strengthen its own position at the forefront of technological change. Further, as UK startups grow into small businesses they will need to become scalable. Direct connections to the Chinese market may present opportunities for small businesses to export, produce, or scale their operations internationally in Asia’s growth markets. 
The Tianjin forum demonstrated the opportunity for the British entrepreneurship education system to develop internationally. As it does so, forward-thinking places such as Tianjin and Nankai University offer real opportunities for small UK businesses to scale up with the support they need. 
For more information, please contact the author Simon Stewart in China at simon.stewart@cbbc.org.cn or Nathalie Cachet-Gaujard in the UK at nathalie.cachet-gaujard@cbbc.org.
To learn more about enterprise education in the UK, go to www.enterprise.ac.uk or join the International Entrepreneurship Educators Conference from 7th-9th September: www.ieec.co.uk
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VIP attendees at the Sino-UK (Tianjin) Innovation & Entrepreneurship Education Forum
  • Mr Yang Qinghai, Deputy Head, Tianjin Municipal Education Commission
  • Ms Yang Kexin, Vice-President, Nankai University
  • Mr Zhang Jianqing, Director, International Exchange Division, Tianjin Municipal Education Commission
  • Mr Li Xu, Deputy Director, Student Division, Tianjin Municipal Education Commission
  • Mr Zhang Yuli, Dean of Business School, Nankai University
  • Mr Dai Yuwai, President, Tianjin Vocational Technical College of Light Industry
  • Mr. Li Kang, Secretary of the Communist Youth League, Nankai University
  • Ms Wang Junyan, Deputy Director, International Exchange Division, Tianjin Municipal Education Commission
  • Ms Li Qing, Deputy Director, Student Division, Tianjin Municipal Education Commission
  • Mr Sun Weiye, Vice-Chair, Tianjin Society of Science for Sciences
  • Karen Bill, Chair, Enterprise Educators UK and University of Wolverhampton
  • Paula Whitehouse, Director, Aston Centre for Growth (Aston University)
  • Rubina Rashid, Assistant Principal, Barnsley College
  • Adam Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in Engineering Design Methods and the Business of Design, Faculty of Science and Engineering
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