Three thoughts after IEEC 2019…

It’s been a couple of weeks since the record breaking IEEC 2019. It tipped 400+ delegates on the busiest day – a testament to how this event is an epicentre for enterprise educators looking for ideas, support and feedback. My favourite experience was Amelia Reeves’ workshop, which included a humorous recount of the NCL Apprentice marketing through the ages, and serious discussion about how to reach students who aren’t drawn to typical entre-tainment activities. There was lots more to casserole after the conference, here’s three things I’ve been thinking about since…

  1. Can anyone do anything?

Every conference kicks off with some keynotes, and IEEC 2019’s Day 1 line up included the new Patron of EEUK, Lord Karan Bilimoria, CBE DL and Professor Geoff Scott from Western Sydney Australia University. Lord Bilimoria, an accomplished and polished speaker, shared his thoughts on entrepreneurship and universities, and the ‘phenomenal power’ that can be generated when these two things come together. The ultimate message (I perceived), was about developing students’ mindsets, and the role of the university in doing that. So, within his talk, he wove in details of his own life and the story of starting and growing Cobra beer.  He name checked Wellington – fortune favours the brave – and recalled the qualities of his business mentor, a man who nearly lost everything, but was now a property owner, renting to students and able to help entrepreneurs, including him, in their pursuit of business success. One word summed such people up – ‘Guts’. Luck is where ‘determination meets opportunity’ and the question was: ‘how are we going to get our students to have that mindset and see those opportunities?’ Lord Bilimoria’s talk acknowledged the role that luck and his background had played in his success; a father in the military, friends from boarding school he could call on, his education at Cambridge, having an invested and well connected mentor as he started up in business. Whilst mindset is undoubtedly important, these other factors cannot be underestimated. It reminded me of a recent paper, where the authors, Galloway, Kapasi and Wimalasena (2019), described why ‘my dad is not Richard Branson.’ In the context of Lord Bilimoria’s speech, his message, that ‘anyone can get anywhere and do anything’ would be seen as prioritising human agency (our power to take action), over structural issues (unseen mechanisms, power relations and social forces which shape action). Galloway et al argue that, in business and enterprise literature, the tendency is to overlook ‘the entangled nature of the individual and society as co-related and co-dependent’ and to try and explain ‘venturing actions simply from the intentions of an individual without reference to their context’. This statement makes me reflect on the increasing talk from colleagues in HE about student poverty, observing more students applying for hardship funds, and students having to reject entrepreneurial opportunities (such as Enterprise Placement Year), because changes in student finance mean that they cannot support themselves to take the leap and spend a year in self-employment. This speaks to the importance of understanding human action as embedded in a social context, and practically influenced by material circumstances. If we don’t acknowledge this, then do we risk writing off students as lacking entrepreneurial spirit, when, if they were in different material circumstances, they might be empowered to take different action? And what action can we take to enable students from different circumstances to access the same opportunities? Returning to a current, practical example, as a sector, we are seeing financially challenged students pulling out of Enterprise Placement Year provision because they are not able to get full loans. Now imagine if there was an option, on the student finance application process, to select ‘Enterprise Placement Year’. Not only would this option raise awareness that there was such as element of provision, but it would also meet the needs of those students who require a full loan to be able to access that opportunity. Part of Professor Geoff Scott’s brilliant keynote about universities having fitness of purpose and a morally robust direction, included advice about how to influence policy (always offer a solution). So when I posed the problem of the Enterprise Placement Year funding to policy advisers Diana Beech and Ben Johnson, in their fireside chat, I also offered that relatively simple solution (option to select ‘Enterprise Placement Year’ when applying for student finance).

Student Finance TweetI’d hope this issue of finance for students who want to access Enterprise placement opportunities is something that EEUK, and its patron could explore, so that students from all backgrounds are better able to access to that particular opportunity.

2. Research Philosophy 101…

Talking of context, that brings me to the workshop that Phil Clegg and I ran about Realist Evaluation, including a nerve wracking whistle stop tour of research philosophies and the impact they have on evaluation approaches. It’s a complicated area, and one that would be easy to get wrong in a 5 minute slot, so it was a relief to get through our Research Philosophy 101 with our positivism, constructivism and realism introductions with the audience still with us.

DaveJarm_R_P_101_

Whilst ‘philosophy’ might seem somewhat abstract for a practitioner conference, I’d argue that various philosophies, especially when it comes to evaluation and evaluation design are ‘in us’, whether we know it or not. The inclination towards measurement, perceiving ‘scientific’ research approaches such as Randomised Control Trials as the ‘gold standard, and the idea that objective researchers report neutrally on ‘facts’ are assumptions that are grounded in and around positivistic philosophy. Whilst we introduced Realist Evaluation (with its grounding in a realist philosophy), an ultimate point we were trying to communicate was the usefulness of understanding the assumptions which underpin different approaches to evaluation. In education, we have increasingly been told to behave more like the health profession – where ‘evidenced based medicine’ helps clinicians make decisions about ‘what works’. But, as I wrote recently for the TES, Realist Evaluation is an approach being championed in health and clinical research, where evaluators are  frustrated with the incomplete knowledge that is generated by traditional methods such as RCTs. This movement has been aided by a research project called RAMESES, which has ‘training materials’ galore and explains complex (yes, philosophical), issues in wonderfully accessible two and three page introductions and Frequently Asked Questions. Both Phil and I are using Realist Evaluation to look at enterprise education programmes at university level, such as Enterprise Placement Year, and also in our PhD Study. He is looking at support programmes for social enterprises, and I’m looking at the theory and practice of Competitive Enterprise Education. Realist Evaluation is an adaptable, flexible approach, but best of all, its underpinning philosophy makes more sense to me in the context of the sorts of complex, social programmes we run in enterprise education. In particular, I like how it recognises that what we can see (experiences, such as taking part in an enterprise activity and outcomes, such as changes one might observe after the activity), are the results of things we can’t see (the reactions and reasoning of individuals). As an evaluator it makes you more focused on why someone did (or didn’t) do something, not (just) whether they did it. This line of thought requires much more attention to be paid towards the role that context plays, at an individual, interpersonal and wider/social level. Its focus on individual reasoning as a process of change, makes you think about what’s going on that you can’t see (in people’s minds), but which is actually causing something to happen.

3. The power of IEEC/EEUK

My background is working on enterprise education in primary and secondary education, and this year, the schools’ community said farewell and thank you to a long time champion and coordinator of enterprise education, as he went off to start a new life in hospice fundraising. Gary Durbin worked on enterprise education at a national level for a number of years (too many to say, it makes me feel old). He took over the Enterprise Village website after enterprise education in schools took a tumble down the political agenda and funding cuts threatened its maintenance and sustainability.

Thanks and goodbye Gary_

Previously, there was a conference for school level enterprise educators too, run by the SSAT, and after that got pulled, Gary also organised an annual event/conference, the last couple supported/hosted by London South Bank University. Gary’s event was a chance for educators in the schools and FE sector to meet, share, unpick what they do, be inspired, question and all the other things that go on when people who deeply interested in a particular subject get together. IEEC is such a forum, and, provides enormous value to participants. I’m two thirds of the way through a PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, investigating Competitive Enterprise Education at school level, and there was much brain food in the workshop programme at IEEC. Charlotte Windebank got delegates thinking about the ‘features of the perfect competition’ and then introduced First Networks enterprise competition for HE students across the North East. Amelia Reeves explored the development of the NCL’s Apprentice Challenge, and work she had done to understand students perceptions of the marketing of this opportunity, and changes to language over time. Participants shared the ‘good and the bad’ of how enterprise support services and activities are marketed and a theme emerged around how do you reach students who may be put off by typical enterprise messages. One delegate described a recent success where they ran a ‘Pitch like a DJ’ session, attended by 70+ students, many who were new to enterprise, and attracted by the DJ and the music, rather than the enterprise, though, through the process, they got both. Finally, Bekki Moodie and Kadeza Begum from UEL, ran an energetic Friday morning session, introducing ideas and methods to incorporate mini-hacks into the curriculum.

Both within and after the workshops, there was much chatting with colleagues, and thinking through reactions and ideas. It underscored to me how very lucky HE colleagues are to have a practitioner led membership organisation (EEUK), working for them. Whether it is offering important professional development and recognition such as the EEUK Fellowship, or having the amazing  Alison Price and EEUK directors working on policy issues, or connecting and challenging practitioners through the brilliant IEEC, EEUK serves and represents its members. You can read more about them here, and if you haven’t been to the conference before, IEEC 2020 is being hosted by Aston University from the 9th – 11th of September – save the date!