Beware the gurus

16th December 2011 at 00:00

Peter Jones, of Dragons' Den fame, recently told an audience of students at one of his enterprise academies that entrepreneurship was the new rock and roll. Plenty of college principals seem to believe him, such as the five who have launched the Gazelle Group, a partnership between colleges and business leaders to promote entrepreneurial thinking.

Perhaps though, entrepreneurship in colleges is better understood as the new BTEC in performing arts: attractive to students dreaming of a shortcut to fame and riches, but likely to be something of a broken promise as far as most of their career paths go. It is not such a far-fetched comparison since, thanks to Dragons' Den and The Apprentice, entrepreneurship is now intrinsically linked with celebrity. And of course, it has a particular, deluded appeal in a tough economy.

The objections to entrepreneurship being promoted as a subject of study are partly educational, partly economic. On the education side, can entrepreneurialism really be taught? Peter Jones believes it can, but his qualification is a very close cousin to what we used to call business studies, except for one unit on the "entrepreneurial mindset". If this is anything but motivational fluff, I will eat a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

The other educational objection is that it is a vocational qualification that qualifies you for nothing. A BTEC in entrepreneurship won't impress investors any more than a diploma from Muncie College of Business Administration. It faces all of the prejudice of vocational qualifications without their trump card - being a passport to a trade or industry.

The Gazelle Group makes an economic argument: "Britain needs a new generation of colleges with an ethos, culture and set of values distinctively geared towards wealth creation, business growth and employment outcomes." There's nothing wrong with FE preparing people for work. But the argument that entrepreneurialism creates wealth and jobs is flawed.

Plucky small businesses are overhyped. Small businesses do create the most jobs, but they destroy most of them too. The strongest economies, by contrast, tend to be based on large firms that can create big productivity gains. The other economic point is that the majority of wealth creators aren't entrepreneurs. Research shows most business owners aren't interested in growth or bringing a new idea to market.

But the best reason to be suspicious of the entrepreneurship movement is its plethora of would-be gurus. A number of the Gazelle Group's "entrepreneurs" have done little in business except talk about business. Claire Young, formerly a contestant on The Apprentice, runs businesses that promote business education. Emma Jones ran a company for just two years before moving into the entrepreneur guru market. No doubt more entrepreneurship education is good for their businesses, but "those who can't do, teach," should be anathema to FE.

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