Is entrepreneurship education the answer to Europe’s escalating youth job crisis? Sherelle Jacobs investigates
We were young, but we had good advice and good ideas and lots of enthusiasm.” This is how Bill Gates lays out the formula that ensured his place as one of the most successful entrepreneurs that the world has ever given rise to. The astronomical achievements of other high profile young entrepreneurs in recent years, from 26-year-old Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to Groupon brainchild Andrew Mason, who’s only 30, has intensified debate about whether there is a secret recipe for rearing youth to become business success stories. Interestingly, accompanying this in Europe is a steady but unmistakable trend towards teaching entrepreneurship in schools.
If there was ever a time for entrepreneurship education to gather momentum across Europe, it is now. As European countries slip into new economic downturns and others hover precariously on the cusp of recession, interest in entrepreneurship as a solution to rising unemployment and lacklustre growth has inevitably spiked.
“In recessions, enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and business start-ups traditionally increases because there are fewer jobs. So people then have to look to creating jobs for themselves, says David Miller of The Enterprise Education Trust, a UK-based charity that promotes youth entrepreneurship through various projects.
Emerging Europe’s pioneers
Crucially, the current economic slump which is gripping Europe has hit young people particularly hard. Youth unemployment in Europe has rocketed by 50 per cent to nearly one in four since the financial crisis began in 2008, according to the European Commission. In Greece and Spain, half of young people are without work. And the number of young people who are in work, but not on secure contracts, is worryingly high. This has made entrepreneurship a particularly appealing alternative for school and university-leavers who struggle to progress from unpaid internships to paid positions and feel they have little to lose.
“Youth unemployment is particularly high at the moment. Young people are fed up with what feels like battering their head against the wall trying to get a job. Instead they’re thinking: ‘Why don’t I create a job for myself?’ This ultimately has nurtured a greater appetite for entrepreneurship education,” Miller said.
As a consequence, interest in teaching entrepreneurship in schools has steadily risen over the last few years and concrete measures are beginning to be adopted. At secondary school level, entrepreneurship is increasingly being taught as a separate subject. It is largely Eastern European countries that are the pioneers in this regard; in both Romania and Lithuania it is now a compulsory subject. And in Poland it soon will be, as part of changes to the curriculum that are scheduled to be introduced in the next academic year.
Catch them young
Entrepreneurship is also being taught as an optional subject in a host of other countries including Slovenia, Bulgaria, Austria, Spain and Denmark. Interest in teaching it as a subject in primary schools is also evident, albeit to a lesser extent. For example, Slovakia has introduced Work Education to its curriculum, a subject which has a big focus on entrepreneurship. There is also growing enthusiasm for integrating entrepreneurship teaching into traditional subjects such as maths, history, geography and social sciences .
But the progress that has been made so far is still modest, according to Professor John Levie of the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde.
“There is still a debate going on about whether entrepreneurship can be learnt. Anyone can get up and try and teach it. But the crucial question is whether it can be learnt. Entrepreneurship education remains a relatively immature area. We’re still in the early stages of understanding it,” he says. The exact skills that make a good entrepreneur and how those traits are picked up and developed is a complex question with no clear answer. But ideas are starting to take shape:
“We know that it is best to start with young people as early as possible. On a primary-school level, we need to hone their non-cognitive skills like creativity and persistence. Then, at secondary schools, the focus needs to be more cognitive and context specific. For example, through getting pupils to run their own mini businesses.”
David Miller at The Enterprise Education Trust Agrees. “We try to get kids to create their own businesses as part of our entrepreneurship work with young people,” he said. “That way they can learn first-hand basic lessons about marketing, spreadsheets, financing and all the other basic things when it comes to running a business.”
Although experts are steadily building an impression of how the subject can best be taught, implementation is another matter. On a European-wide level, there is, for example, the added problem that attitudes and approaches to learning differ across the region. More specifically, the flexible, hands-on approach to learning, which is the ideal climate for entrepreneurship teaching is not evident across the region. “On a global level, different countries have different attitudes and very different modes of teaching. Some favour a more Socratic method, which draws actions out of people. Others have a more Confucian ‘you will listen to what I say’ approach. The latter method does not fit with what is really required for teaching entrepreneurship,” says Professor Levie.
Although excitement and curiosity about the area is rising, key stakeholders are yet to be won over in many European countries. Firstly, the enthusiasm of certain governments in some countries, such as the UK, still seems lukewarm.
“The last government was particularly focused on expanding in this area. But the current one doesn’t seem to be very focused on it. It’s surprising in a way, because the Tories are supposed to be interested in small businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Miller. Perhaps a more serious quandary is that teachers can be, at best, sceptical and, at worst, outwardly hostile to a subject which they perceive as lacking intellectual and academic rigour and undermining traditional subjects. Experts remark that some teachers see subjects like entrepreneurship as a threat to normal teaching methods.
“In Scotland there was a lot of scepticism when entrepreneurship education was introduced. But once teachers saw the positive effects it had, they started to really come on board. You’ve got to win teachers over by showing them the value of it, said Professor Levie.
Beyond this are yet more quandaries, not least the fact that curriculum in European countries is already squeezed, with little room for new, unconventional subjects. And others point out that, with many European pupils failing to leave school with other indispensable skills for the business-world, such as basic numeracy and literacy capabilities, as well as advantageous extras like a grasp of modern languages, it is important not to shift emphasis away from the achievement of core academic goals. Nonetheless, advocates of teaching entrepreneurship insist its benefits in boosting confidence levels means it still deserves attention.
“I think it is essential, especially as the economy is tougher in terms of getting employment. More importantly, it will boost self esteem, teach students to reflect on themselves and this will be of life long benefit,” said Dr Spinder Dhaliwal of the University of Surrey.
In today’s tough European economic climate, which delivers knock-backs that can leave even the most self-assured young people questioning their abilities, perhaps the gift of self esteem that entrepreneurship as a subject brings is what, more than anything, gives it value. European policymakers and pedagogues alike should take note.