As a leading advocate of the "entrepreneurial graduate", Kerry Murphy Healey did a surprisingly conventional PhD. The title of her dissertation was The Impact of Cultural and Legal Influences on Certain Aspects of the Judicial Development of Human Rights in the Republic of Ireland. Her supervisors were Kader Asmal and Basil Chubb, two late greats of Trinity College Dublin's humanities departments.
"I can't say I used it a lot, but it was a good basis for thinking," says the president of Babson College, in Boston, Massachusetts.
She completed the postgraduate degree 30 years ago, on a visiting scholarship to Dublin, and it was there she also met her husband, a fellow US scholar.
“It was a very productive time.”
Now heading one of the world’s top-ranked business schools, she is returning to Ireland next week to bring her message of entrepreneurship for all.
“From day one, we point out to our students they are likely to spend only 14 hours a week in class, and if they are getting the most out of their education they need to be practising entrepreneurial skills outside their classroom. Most colleges talk about extracurricular activities. We talk about cocurricular activities.”
This is the philosophy behind “Babson 168”, a credo for students at the college. “There are 168 hours in a week. How you manage your 168 hours a week will be critical for the next four years that you have in college,” a student on the college website explains to freshmen.
It's a long way from Cardinal John Henry Newman's idea of the university. Whither "the inestimable benefit of the litera scripta" these days?
Healey, who has the sort of dazzling CV you’d expect from a Babson College president – former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Republican National Committeewoman, and senior campaigner in Mitt Romney’s presidential bid – says you need to be highly motivated to succeed today.
“There are not enough jobs available to accommodate everyone who wants one. Entrepreneurship says you don’t have to be looking for a job. You can be creating a job – and even creating a job for many others in the process. It’s a shift in thinking, and I think that’s one of the reasons people are drawn to it at the moment.”
Drawn to it they are. The Higher Education Authority is sponsoring a new plan to upskill lecturers at third level so they can teach entrepreneurship and "give our children the toolkit they need to design their own future".
On Monday the Campus Entrepreneurship Enterprise Network will be launched at a conference at Farmleigh House. It will involve training and professional support for academics, as well as the sharing of resources and teaching methods.
“If you are an engineer teaching engineering for the last 20 years, I suppose teaching entrepreneurship might be a bit daunting,” says Bridget Kerrigan, project manager for the Accelerating Campus Entrepreneurship consortium behind the scheme. “How do you demystify it? Well, a lot of it is quite straightforward. If you said, ‘We are teaching creativity, innovation and design,’ then that is a lot more palatable.”
Kerrigan, who is based at Dundalk Institute of Technology, says entrepreneurship "should be in every subject, and in every discipline. It's not just about skills for starting a business – those technical and organisational skills. It's also life skills, learning teamwork, leadership, problem-solving. It's a continuum of behaviour. It's about being able to cope well with the world of work. To be competitive in the work environment you need more than the academic qualification."
One university putting added emphasis on entrepreneurship is TCD, which is recruiting a new professor of business studies to drive a planned €70 million business school and innovation hub. Not everyone is enamoured with the plan, and some believe there's a touch of the emperor's new clothes to entrepreneurship. The TCD economist Prof Brian Lucey says, "Ireland's problem is not lack of entrepreneurship. It's going from small companies to medium companies."
From a Trinity perspective, he says, the college “does not have strengths” in the area, unlike institutions such as the University of Limerick, Dublin City University and University College Dublin.
“My question is why are we trying to build new strengths rather than try to strengthen the areas we are already good at, like accounting and finance, international business and organisational studies.”
Lucey notes that although “entrepreneurship is in vogue”, its value is still unproven and “it’s questionable whether many of the skills of the entrepreneur can be taught”.
Even Kerrigan admits that the current evidence is anecdotal and that the area needs further research. “Students would say they feel more confident and employable and that they have gained transferable skills. But whether there is a cause-effect to say this leads to greater numbers going into employment – to be quite frank, we are not there yet.”
For proof of the benefits of an “entrepreneurial education”, Healey points to surveys showing that Babson graduates “are consistently rated either in the top five or number one for return on investment in education”.
Typically for the US, fees are not low – a year’s tuition is $45,000 (€33,000) before food and board – but Healey knows all about sacrifices from personal experience and how they pay off in the long run. She recalls that her first tuition bill from Harvard came to $15,000 and that at the time her mother was making $12,000 a year as a school teacher.
The college is on a drive to expand diversity on campus, she notes, and alumni have “really responded” to plans to set up global scholars programmes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It fits with another Babson philosophy, the notion of “entrepreneurship of all kinds”.
“Our approach is very broad,” says Healey. “We believe entrepreneurship is a way of thinking and acting, not a specific activity, and you can apply it to humanities, science and other fields.” It’s about “being creative and flexible” and learning by engaging with the world.
From this perspective it's not very different from what Newman recommended in his 1854 tract The Idea of a University, in which he said: "If we wish to become exact and fully furnished in any branch of knowledge which is diversified and complicated, we must consult the living man and listen to his living voice . . . You must imitate the student in French or German, who is not content with his grammar, but goes to Paris or Dresden."
In time the Newman 168 just might take off.
Kerry Murphy Healey will be speaking at the NUI Maynooth 2014 Education Forum next Friday; nuim.ie/MaynoothEducationForum. A resource website for educators, designed by Accelerating Campus Entrepreneurship, will go live on Monday at ceen.ie