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Why every Australian university needs an entrepreneur-in-residence

The chief scientist called for it. Harvard, Columbia and Stanford Universities already have them and RMIT and Victoria University are among the increasing number of Australian Universities that have them.

Entrepreneur-in-residence (EiR) programs are certainly growing in popularity, as is the broader field of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Australian economy, but why do we need them in our higher education system and why should each institution have one?

What is an EiR?

While the role of an EiR has never been well-understood, it originally centred on scouting for new opportunities and providing high-level strategy advice to venture capital funds.

Today, the role of an EiR is transforming into a blend of high-level strategy, domain expertise and tactical gap filling, but can be generally summed up to be tasked with bringing an entrepreneurial perspective to any organisation.

Every institution?

Despite the name, the purpose of an EiR program isn’t to turn every student into an entrepreneur but to better equip and support students and institutions to deal with the realities of the world today.

Importantly, an EiR provides a catalyst for change and can fill the gaps that emerge while institutions adjust. This doesn’t mean that every institution needs an EiR to itself – indeed, some smaller higher education institutions could definitely share resources in this area.

But it is clear that every institution should have access to an EiR in a real and genuine way and there are three high-level reasons why EiR programs are critical for Australian higher education institutions: educational, operational and societal.

1. Educational

No matter how you look at it, the world post-graduation is becoming more competitive and volatile for students (and also non-graduates for that matter). It is no longer enough for graduates to have a degree or certificate.

Employers are looking for staff that can bring more to the table than technical knowledge; they need to be problem solvers and able to adapt quickly. On top of this, the notion of employment and what it means to have a career is changing as individuals become more likely to change jobs, operate in flatter structures, and in some cases create their own employment.

This is leading to increasing demand from students, as well as employers, for higher education institutions to provide students with courses and extracurricular activities in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship. From an institutional and student perspective, EiR programs make sense then because they can coordinate and have input into these courses and activities such as hackathons, accelerator and incubation programs; drawing on industry links and previous experiences to create a valuable learning experience and facilitate an entrepreneurial culture among students, researchers and educators.

2. Operational

While not as visible, EiR programs can add value to higher education institutions by becoming a resource to the organisation itself.

As higher education institutions themselves seek to compete and adapt in an increasingly competitive and volatile environment, much like their graduates, the perspective of an EiR can be a valuable edge.

EiRs can review research programs and look for potential opportunities for commercialisation or collaboration leading to better research outcomes and financial dividends.

In addition, EiRs can look inward and provide advice to the institution on future trends, threats and opportunities that may not be as apparent to internal administrators and academics.

Our higher education institutions are grappling with challenges, among other things, from online educational providers, new format education such as coding bootcamps, and community questions about the merit and value of higher education itself.

EiRs would not be a silver bullet for the higher education sector but they would provide an important broadening of perspective for institutions, increasing their ability to be adaptive and stay competitive.

3. Societal

The format of higher education has changed, with online delivery models, an increasing number of degrees, and a growing focus on applied academic areas being some of the recent shifts.

With the growing interest, and subsequently focus by higher education institutions, in entrepreneurship and innovation as a study area there needs to be an acknowledgement that much of the learning and advancement of this field happens outside of the lab and classroom.

Therefore from a societal component, higher education institutions have just as much of a duty to have EiRs for entrepreneurship and innovation as they do to have professors in other fields.

In addition, if higher education institutions are to truly develop entrepreneurship and innovation as a field of academic study then they should look to develop EiR programs as a way to ensure that the applied nature of the field is co-opted into the institutions environment. In a way this is similar to the use of experienced barristers and solicitors in the teaching of law and the applied nature of medical education.

What’s next?

With some higher education institutions already taking the lead there is a growing number of examples for other institutions to draw from when developing their own EiR programs and indeed spurring interest in them – but there is still progress to be made.

While there is already strong government support for this sort of activity we need higher education institutions and entrepreneurs to continue to engage, be open to try new things and create the EiR programs that their communities need.

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