Education v entrepreneurship: How universities can strike a balance

Re:publica digital conference hears universities should not just focus on the bottom line

Entrepreneurship has a place in modern universities, but should not be an overriding philosophy for how a university is run, according to a panel on Friday, the second day of the Re:publica Dublin digital society conference, held in Smithfield.

Trinity College's incubator programme has very successfully integrated the academic development of entrepreneurs into the university, producing 220 entrepreneurs that have raised €2.1 billion in private equity, said John Whelan, director of Blackstone LaunchPad and LaunchBox at TCD.

But Lesley Tully, head of design thinking at Bank of Ireland, warned against entrepreneurship being carried over into how universities are themselves run.

“Education and entrepreneurship are kind of diametrically opposed,” she said, noting that education tends to focus on deep thinking, “whereas entrepreneurship is very much the bottom line. The wider question is around the commercialisation of modern universities.”



She worries that, increasingly, all disciplines at universities are being judged by whether they are commercially productive for the university itself. As a result, some areas, such as arts and humanities, are seen as less important or relevant than areas such as computing or other sciences that might spin out companies.

The panel also addressed whether entrepreneurship can be taught, or is better learned in the marketplace.

Whelan said Trinity’s experience showed entrepreneurship has a place in academia and can help produce companies that will have both social and economic impact. But he added that all students do not need to be taught to be entrepreneurs, with perhaps only 5 per cent having that specific interest.

“But we don’t teach entrepreneurship, we do it,” he said.

John Henry Newman's concept of a university as a place where young minds are fed with information from multiple disciplines, and taught how to think and analyse, could in itself be a "toolkit" that very much defines an entrepreneurial mentality, said Johnny Ryan, head of ecosystem at PageFair.

He said entrepreneurship needn’t be narrowly thought of just in terms of disrupting a marketplace.

Mr Ryan said that the multidisciplinary concept of “design thinking” that came out of Stanford University in Silicon Valley and has become popular in businesses, was originated by a professor in computer science and one from the arts.


The university environment, in turn, can help inform entrepreneurship.

"Going into the university environment, you can come back with new concepts, new business models, new product design," said Cian Ó Cuilleanáin, managing director of design studio Baily Labs.

Ms Tully said that “entrepreneurship is the source of growth” for universities, which can be problematical if faculty members are then pressured to be entrepreneurial.

On the other hand, she said, “it feels like Ireland is really in the sweet spot of that. Universities do play a key role in shaping those ambidextrous minds that businesses need.”

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about technology