Conversation #9 Part 2— Antony Beckett and Dave Jarman, Teaching Fellows, University of Bristol

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

In this second part of my interview with Antony and Dave, we discuss the University’s new innovation-focused degree programmes. I wish these programmes had been around when I was doing my first degree.

If you haven’t read Part One of this interview yet, then do pop over there afterwards.

Can you give me a quick summary of your roles here at the Centre?

AB: I’m the Undergraduate Programme Director for the Centre for Innovation, so my role here is about making sure the undergraduate programmes run smoothly and dealing with student related issues. I’m also involved in teaching on the programme, and we’re putting together a unit on Creativity and Innovation some of which reflects how my thinking on innovation has been developing over time.

DJ: I’m the Post Graduate Programme Co-Director here at the Centre like Antony I’m also a Teaching Fellow. Most of my teaching in this area to date has been on entrepreneurship so this is an interesting opportunity to dig into some of the more fundamental principles that underpin entrepreneurial ventures.

What have been the drivers behind developing these new degree courses?

AB: On the one hand we recognise that when undergraduates graduate they increasingly want to set up their own businesses. Many of them felt that their university provided very little support, so we needed to support young people being increasingly innovative and entrepreneurial.

The other driver comes from employers who are telling us that the world of work is changing rapidly, that work is becoming more multidisciplinary, and that it’s much more focused around projects and problems. Young people need to be equipped with the ability to lead projects, manage other people, be flexible and to have some processes that they can use and draw upon to help them solve problems.

DJ: Also, the world of work is fracturing. There’s the rise of the gig economy and the micro business; the idea that you’re going to shift career more times than previous generations have done so behaving like an entrepreneur is an increasingly valid and necessary skillset.

This generation of students is going to have to think on its feet. They’re going to have to make decisions about who they work for, but equally they might find themselves working at one institution and building up a business idea in their spare time, or moving in and out of self-employment and full employment or contracts or portfolio careers at different points over their time.

AB: I think there’s a set of educational issues too. We’re trying to move towards much more active learning, trying to get away from lecture or seminar type structures towards something that is more engaging for students, that gets them outside the University, encourages them to engage in the wider world and then to bring back those experiences and to reflect on them. So, the innovation programme is partly a response to student demand and employers demand, but also more generally about how we make higher education more relevant, interesting and exciting.

DJ: You could see the Centre as kind of an educational ‘Skunk Works’, in that we’re a centre that’s given a bit of license to go and do something different, to break ground that the rest of the institution is interested in seeing developed in some way.

Does that mean the learnings from running these courses could then be applied to the more ‘standard’ degrees, if that’s the word.

AB: Possibly. Staff are being encouraged to become more active whichever department they work in. I think what we represent is a questioning of the idea of single discipline degrees. There are many ways you can integrate more active learning on innovation and entrepreneurship into programmes but it’s never been easy. This is unusual in that it’s a joint award but the innovation and entrepreneurship element is the common factor. That’s not been done anywhere else in the UK.

DJ: Inevitably some of our content will probably get packaged up to be inserted into other programmes, but one of the things we think is interesting about this approach is getting the disciplinary depth alongside the innovation content. If all the content was about innovation and entrepreneurship, you might not have the raw material of a discipline to do anything particularly interesting or radical with it. There’s a danger that if it was all about entrepreneurship it becomes a degree about the hustle and the process, whereas because we’ve got degree level discipline content in here, the students ought to have some real depth of material to work with.

So the combination of a standard degree subject with this extra thread of innovation and entrepreneurship turns out a graduate more equipped to start a business?

DJ: Yes, what we aim to do is produce a T-shaped graduate with discipline depth, but then the enabling innovation piece that allows them to work across other disciplines and use that depth more meaningfully — because students might get to the end of deep degree and know a lot about something, but not necessarily know how to use it.

AB: We’re trying to make the degrees more relevant by providing students with a set of tools so they can use their discipline and knowledge in new ways.

What kind of students are interested in these degrees?

DJ: Almost all of them are really interested in their subject discipline but wanted a bit extra. A surprising number of them are already running businesses of their own and have got bigger projects on the go.

AB: You could argue that some of them are hedging their bets, by looking for a bit more depth; maybe they want to have a venture in the future but they don’t know what it is yet and they want the time, the inspiration and the provocation to get there.

I’m intrigued that you said some students are already running their own businesses, or running their own projects. When I was at University I didn’t know anybody running their own business — mostly it was all about propping up the bar! Is this a new trend with undergraduates?

DJ: My previous role to this was in the professional services side of the institution, so I ran extra-curricular programmes supporting student entrepreneurs for about eight years.

I picked up a lot of those students who did have ventures but were here studying another discipline and not getting the chance to bring that venture into their academic study. And yes, those numbers have grown year on year. I have had colleagues joke that when they went to University, everybody wanted to start a rock band in their garage, whereas modern students want to start app companies and tech firms…

AB: Hewlett Packard in their garage.

DJ: The entrepreneur is the new rock star. Equally I think the technology changes we’ve seen in the last ten, twenty years mean that many of them have been able to start a global venture with little more than a laptop and a wifi connection. If you really wanted to, you could set up a business between now and tea time. How many of them have got any customers or any turnover? That we don’t know yet. I suspect it’s not as good as they might claim, but better than we might expect.

What kind of support do you think your graduates are going to need when they come out with their newly minted Masters in Innovation?

AB: We’ve already set up an incubator that sits inside the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, populated by graduates who have been though the system already and set up their own businesses. The hope is that we will develop that incubator further, that we’ll find finance for those students through sponsorship so they can be given some time to work on their businesses; and we’ll probably model that quite closely on what happens in the Pervasive Media Studio. It’s very different to the incubator at the Engine Shed, it’s much more chaotic — chaotic in a good way in our ability to support more undeveloped ideas and creativity and take a few risks.

DJ: Some students will have started their venture before they graduate, and others will have decided that they want to go into more conventional employment, albeit probably in an innovation role. My gut feeling is, that about a third of them will probably graduate as entrepreneurs; a third of them will graduate into intrapreneurial roles in bigger firms; and a third of them will go and join small, emerging, SME organisations in those early stages of development and be effectively something of a hybrid between entre and intra.

It’s about building a network and an eco-system to support all those paths. Part of it is about identifying those other players in the eco-system so if we get a really fast moving, hi-tech, hi-growth venture, they go straight into Set Squared, if that’s the best place for them to be. If they’re leaning towards some sort of art creative, digital piece then that’s probably the Pervasive Media Studio; if it’s a little bit slower burn and needs six months’ safe place to grow, that might well be us; ideally they can see all those different routes and pathways and we’ve given them a leg up to get there.

AB: We need to generate a whole wave of micro businesses to go to the next stage. Then many of them will exit and morph and change and you should see a slow process of weaning those out until you’ve got two or three good businesses.

DJ: Incubation does dramatically improve the odds of businesses making it through to some sort of profit. There is some research that shows that most entrepreneurs only get it right on the third attempt, so one of the principles here is about giving students a safe space to have those first two attempts, learn from them, and not get too badly burned in the process.

How much is government pushing for universities to become more closely integrated with enterprise?

AB: There’s an endless discourse from government about getting business involved in Higher Education. The problem is, business doesn’t know what it wants. Business can’t write us a list of skills that it requires because those skills are constantly moving or because different businesses have different requirements. It’s almost impossible for us to provide anything other than very broad sets of skills that undergraduates and graduates can take out into the real world and that’s what this programme does: provides subject knowledge and marries that with a broader set of skills.

DJ: There’s a massive disconnect between the careers advice they get at school about what to study at university and what employers tell universities they want out of the graduate labour force.

Lots of school careers advice and league tables are still based around prestigious institutions and traditional courses, and yet we’ve got employers talking about vocational qualifications, professional skills, and real direct workplace competencies. I think this course does a remarkably good job of finding a hybrid route through that.

What’s been the biggest challenge in putting these degrees together?

AB: There are always significant set up challenges. The University doesn’t normally operate in this way — we have a very siloed structure and to create a part of a degree and then run it across multiple degrees has been extremely difficult and has created a set of questions that no-one has ever had to answer before. For example, who owns the student? Which school do they belong to, who’s their tutor? If something goes wrong in their core degree, how do they deal with that? What happens if they fail part of their core degree, but they pass everything on the innovation side? There’s all those bureaucratic problems that have taken a long time to get over and are still a problem to some degree.

Timetabling continues to be a nightmare. At this early stage, for students it’s trying to bring these two things together for them, so we get a lot of questions. They’re very impatient to start using their main subject in the Innovation Centre.

Most of the issues at the moment are about reassuring the students that they’re doing a new thing that no-one else is doing and it’s okay.

DJ: That challenge about bringing their discipline into innovation and what their expectations of that relationship will be is interesting. In some ways we are teaching psychology [or whatever their core subject might be — Ed.] alongside innovation, not psychology and innovation in the same session, so we need the students to make some of those links for us.

As an example, the founder and Chief Executive of Tough Mudder, Will Dean, is a University of Bristol alumnus. He’s one of the patrons and partners of the Centre and he and his team at Tough Mudder set some of our students an extra-curricular challenge to design an obstacle for the courses.

We had four teams pitch obstacles to him yesterday afternoon and one of those teams just happened to all be psychology and innovation students. They brought a lot of psychological insights into their obstacle design. They were talking about cortisol and serotonin and dopamine and the idea of creating a biological challenge by constructing an obstacle in a very particular way. That was interesting to see.

That was sadly where we had to stop chatting — but if you’ve enjoyed this interview and haven’t read Part One yet, why not pop over and have a look? You can find out all about practice approaches to innovation and why driverless cars might not work.

This article was supported by idea management platform Solverboard. Do check out Solverboard Work, their suite of idea management tools that help organisations inspire, capture, measure and reward the collective intelligence of their people.

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