Encouraging the brightest students to turn their backs on the bluechips in favour of setting up their own company is no mean feat: how do you convince someone with a student loan debt to forego the fast-track salary schemes and signing on bonuses just so they can experience being their own boss?
According to Ian Robertson, chief executive of the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship (NCGE), which was set up with the backing of chancellor Gordon Brown to promote entrepreneurship, education has a very important role to play in changing perceptions of self employment.
“Research from Barclays shows that the number of under-25s starting their own businesses is gradually decreasing, and this is something we are committed to change," Robertson tells Startups.co.uk.
"Central to this has been our Flying Start campaign - a series of rallies held at universities across the UK, inviting students to access information about self employment and encouraging them to explore going it alone.
"Hundreds attended our rallies and from these, individuals with the promising business ideas were selected to join the Flying Start Programme where they are fully supported in the development of their ideas.
“But if the number of students and graduates who applied for a place on the programme was overwhelming, and the level of innovation demonstrated by their ideas was very high, why is there a reluctance by young people to become an entrepreneur which, by definition alone, must be the most exciting business proposition?
“Some detractors suggest that the introduction of tuition fees has made students less willing to go it alone, preferring first to clear their debts before taking any potential financial risks.
"But the UNITE Student Experience report, published at the start of the year, suggests that students are actually quite relaxed about their finances - just 31 per cent claiming they feel ‘seriously concerned’ about debt.
"Additionally, in the US, where tuition fees are considered to be high, graduate entrepreneurs still account for thirty per cent of the growth in the economy, as opposed to just eight per cent in the UK. Take these factors into account and it’s clear that there must be other reasons why so few of our graduates choose to become self employed.
“Perhaps we should take a look at the role education has played in shaping attitudes – are schools and universities doing enough to promote entrepreneurship and equip young people with the skills needed start up, and run, their own company?
"Research shows that young would be entrepreneurs feel they lack business acumen and have little idea how to actually get a business off the ground.
"Researching their market, dealing with the necessary bureaucracy, managing finances and acquiring funding appear to be insurmountable hurdles. It’s not surprising that, for many, the security of a steady job with a reliable salary, good promotion prospects and training programmes, may seem more attractive than the great unknown.
“Ignorance of the process of securing investment is another obstacle for would-be entrepreneurs. Historically, parents may have helped their offspring set up in business, perhaps financially or simply by providing a roof over their heads; but now, with increasing costs of higher education, parents have often had enough by the time graduation comes around and want a break from financial constraints."
A growing number of startup businesses are reliant on external investment yet few graduates fresh out of university are armed with the tools they need to raise capital to create their business. Often, their ideas are not developed enough to be ‘investment ready’, and even if they are, these graduates may not know how to identify potential backers or deliver a pitch that could help them secure that elusive seed funding.
“So why is it that our educational establishments do so little to foster entrepreneurial spirit?" asks Robertson. "Perhaps we should take a look at what qualities we consider an entrepreneur to possess.
"Ask anyone to list prominent British entrepreneurs and you can be sure Sirs Richard Branson and Alan Sugar will be mentioned. Their phenomenal achievements in business, in spite of limited academic success, reinforce the idea that entrepreneurs are born and not made, and that entrepreneurship is something that cannot be taught.
“But in the US, university education makes a valuable contribution to the development of entrepreneurs compared to the UK where many people mistakenly think that the main aim of obtaining a degree is to get on a ‘respectable’ career path with a reputable, well-established company.
"Careers advice can focus heavily on helping students choose between blue chip companies, the public sector or small business, with the option of self-employment often left out of the equation altogether.
“Interestingly though, the vast majority of entrepreneurs are university educated and our universities could be doing more to prepare students for creating their own businesses.
"While the soft skills acquired at university, such as constructing a debate and presenting ideas, are invaluable to aspiring entrepreneurs, certain hard skills, like accounting and administration, can also be taught.
"Entrepreneurship ought to permeate all of the academic faculties – currently enterprise departments within universities help only a very small percentage of the student body and tend to focus on the immediately obvious disciplines for self-employment, like information technology.
“Persuading a student who has set his or her sights on a particular career and has chosen his university and degree subject according to abandon this for a less traditional path is not necessarily our aim; but what we do need to do is get people thinking about entrepreneurship much earlier on in life.
"This could involve linking entrepreneurs with schools, integrating entrepreneurship into careers discussions and advising sixth formers on the universities that support it.
“We should be looking to provide the right environment for entrepreneurship and make it an attractive and respectable option for the next generation.
"Educational institutions must take responsibility for altering the way entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship are perceived. Only by giving people the confidence to turn their business ideas into a reality can we change the future business landscape.”
For more information on the Flying Start campaign, click here