Putting students at the centre of enterprise policy

‘The magic of ownership works wonders, not only upon the soil but upon the happy working owner thereof’ was the firm belief of our founder and internationally celebrated entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie. But over 100 years later, is this what young people in the UK believe? And, more importantly, is self-employment and entrepreneurship something they aspire to in an unknown future economy?

It’s true that the economic climate is far removed from that of Carnegie’s day. But, equally, the financial crisis has reinforced a long period of structural change in the national economy and the ability of very large, traditional employers to provide sustainable futures for the UK’s young workforce appears more and more unrealistic. Young people are expected to work in new environments and sectors for new and changing organisations and to do so with greater flexibility. But is this challenge, in fact, an opportunity young people want to embrace by working for themselves?

To help answer this question, the Carnegie UK Trust surveyed over 1600 further education students across the UK to find out more about their attitudes to enterprise, entrepreneurship and the future economy. And the results paint a unique picture of the aspirations and expectations of 16 – 21 year olds across the UK.

Firstly, student attitudes to enterprise vary across the UK. Students in Wales were more likely to see themselves starting businesses after college, confident that enterprise had been incorporated into their education, inclined to follow the examples of enterprising people and most interested in start-up grants after college, of students in all the jurisdictions.

Where students across the UK were in agreement was that experiencing enterprise as part of their education has an impact. Of the respondents who agreed that their college had built enterprise learning into their courses, 69% thought that it was quite or very likely that they might start a business or work self-employed.

The third clear finding from the research was that role models matter, with more than half of students visualising ‘enterprise’ in a way defined by the media. But there was overwhelming demand to bring enterprise from the Apprentice Board Room into the classroom – with 75% of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing that more opportunities to meet and talk to successful business leaders while at college would be beneficial.

This research has directly informed our new position on enterprise. Our position is five-fold – calling on policymakers, practitioners, educators, businesses and civil society organisations to share success in enterprise education and entrepreneurial learning; allow students to meet with local, successful entrepreneurs; provide opportunities for entrepreneurship; place young entrepreneurs at the heart of strategies to turn around our town centres and work across sectors to maximise investment in our future entrepreneurs. In short, it calls on these groups to place students at the centre of their enterprise policy – to learn from their experiences and what has worked well, and provide the opportunities for entrepreneurship they tell us they are seeking.

Because when they do, the results speak for themselves. In direct response to the 74% of survey respondents who agreed or strongly agreed that grants, loans or funding to pursue a small business idea would be beneficial, the Trust established TestTown, a project which provides young people with the opportunity to trade in vacant spaces in town centres. An evaluation of the pilot project found that 56% of the finalists strongly agreed that they felt more confident in handling new working challenges after taking part; 62% strongly agreed that they had gained new skills that would help them with business start-up; and 81% strongly agreed that their personal enterprise initiative would lead to business success.

Our position paper should not be taken just as synthesis of what we’ve learned about empowering young people and supporting access to education throughout our 100 year history; it is also a call to action to all sectors to continue the conversation with young people in order to build up the fragile evidence base on student views on and awareness of enterprise and entrepreneurship. Because engaging young people in designing the enterprise offer throughout the curriculum and beyond is the only way to provide relevant opportunities for the workforce of the future, and develop young enterprising minds.


Lauren Pennycook is a Policy Officer at the Carnegie UK Trust.