The first courses in entrepreneurship were run in Japan by the University of Kobe as far back as 1938. Within the United States, the start of formal entrepreneurship courses at a university level began in 1947, when Harvard Business School enrolled 188 second year students. From those humble beginnings the field of entrepreneurship within American universities expanded rapidly and spread around the world. However, it took decades for the subject to mature, for example, by 1979 there were only 127 courses being offered across the USA.
During the 1980s government interest in entrepreneurship as a mechanism for enhancing job creation and productivity helped to stimulate university-based studies in the area. Throughout the United States there was a strong growth in the number of courses, doctoral theses and academic journals dealing with the topic. Today there are over 2,200 courses in entrepreneurship in the USA offered by over 1,600 business schools. In addition there are over 100 research centres specialising in entrepreneurship and a large number of dedicated academic journals.
Australia followed a similar path. It was Professor Geoffrey Meredith from the University of New England, who pioneered the study of entrepreneurship and small businesses during the 1970s. However, it was at times a challenge to get these courses and research accepted within Australia’s universities. The introduction of studies into entrepreneurship was initially resisted, with one PhD student being told to remove the word from the title of their thesis on the grounds that it was not a suitable subject for academic research. However, by 1990 there were around 53 courses in entrepreneurship being offered by 17 universities in Australia.
What had changed during the previous decade was government policy, which now began to place a priority on entrepreneurship as a tool for boosting productivity and job creation. This commenced with the establishment of the first Enterprise Workshop in Melbourne in 1979. It took final year engineering students from science and engineering and sought to facilitate their interest in new venture creation. These programs quickly spread to other states and territories. In 1983 Dr John Bailey established the Centre for the Development of Entrepreneurs at Monash University (then known as the Chisholm Institute of Technology). This centre offered courses in business planning and coaching for business start-ups, as well as broking for venture financing.
Academic research and education in small business and entrepreneurship was further fostered with the creation of the Small Enterprise Association of Australia and New Zealand (SEAANZ) in 1987. This organisation, affiliated with the International Council of Small Business (ICSB), brings together the “four pillars” comprising researchers, educators, policy makers and practitioners, around the small business and entrepreneurship domain.
In 2014 the majority of Australia’s 39 universities were offering courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Around 33% were offering postgraduate degree programs in these subjects, and around 18% had full undergraduate degree programs. There were also 8 university-based centres that specialised in entrepreneurship. Several universities also had research clusters that focused on entrepreneurship, innovation and/or small business management.
These details can be found in a Discussion Paper titled: “How do Australia’s universities engage with entrepreneurship and small business?” This is a joint publication between CEMI and SEAANZ. It suggests that Australia’s university sector has now accepted entrepreneurship as a legitimate field of study. However, there is a disconnection between the focus within universities on the study of the subject as a field of social science, and the engagement by these institutions with the small business and entrepreneurial community.
However, only a few institutions get their hands dirty with industry outreach programs, student internships and even new venture creation incubators and start-up centres. Applied research also remains an area that is not actively pursued by most Australian universities. Instead the focus is on peer reviewed publication and the development of theory.
This contrasts with many countries where government policy has focused on strengthening the level of engagement between universities and the small business/entrepreneurship community. To get a significant change within Australia’s university sector will require a recalibration of how academic performance is measured and rewarded.
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McMullan, W. E., and Long, W. A. (1987). "Entrepreneurship Education in the Nineties." Journal of Business Venturing 2(3): 261-275.