Reflections on the role of engaging with Academics to embed in the curriculum for Student Enterprise teams – a University of Westminster perspective

Written by Zsofia Kunvari

This blog post shares insights from the work carried out by Westminster Enterprise Network, at the University of Westminster and does not intend to reflect the experience of all Student Enterprise teams and may not be directly applicable to all HEIs.

Author: Zsofia Kunvari, Enterprise Education Officer, University of Westminster

Enterprise teams sit far and wide within universities but whether they’re attached to Research & Knowledge Exchange, Careers & Employability, or other directorates, one problem often remains: How to bridge the gap between extra-curricular Enterprise activities delivered by Professional Services and the curricular provision delivered by Academic colleagues?

Academic Engagement as an area of activity within Student Enterprise – as well as a job title for a growing number of enterprise team members – covers the challenging task of aligning interests within and outside the curriculum.

My role as an Enterprise Education Officer, focusing on Academic Engagement, started 10 months ago as a brand-new role in my team, without a specific blueprint for how to do it. In this blog, I am hoping to shine a light on some of the challenges and wins that arose from committing to improving communication and collaboration between stakeholders across the extracurricular and curricular provision.

Whether having a dedicated team member responsible for this work or just embracing it as a shared team objective, investing resources into Academic Engagement can achieve three practical outcomes for your Enterprise team.

Better internal communications to generate more collaborations

Efficient communication between Student Enterprise teams and Academic colleagues is often challenging to achieve because of a lack of understanding about which strategies yield the best results. Starting by researching which communication channels for staff are available, understanding which of these channels are Academic colleagues engaging with the most and developing targeted strategies to communicate more regularly and more accurately with them.

Identifying problem-solution fit to address institutional targets collaboratively

By investing time speaking with Academics to understand which precise challenges they face in teaching, student experience and graduate outcomes, embedding enterprise and employability, or other relevant aspect of their work, this will inform the development of targeted interventions which your team can co-create with Academics to address these specific challenges.

Making Enterprise Education accessible without barriers to entry

With a greater than ever emphasis on engaging a majority of students in Enterprise activities, including hard to reach groups, embedding enterprise in the curriculum means giving exposure to all students enrolled on specific modules or courses, instead of relying on the availability and interest of a select few in the context of an extra-curricular provision.

At Westminster Enterprise Network, we used these three desired outcomes to guide the design and development of valuable and long-lasting collaborations between our team and Academic colleagues. We designed of our engagement workflow by strategically positioning the curricular experience as the first engagement in a linear step-by-step journey. The in-classroom experiences designed and delivered collaboratively with Academics, are well thought-through with relevant assessments, as well as the impact on student experience and graduate outcomes in mind. We are aiming to put the students in a good position to enrol into the rest of the extra-curricular activities our team offer to further develop and test their projects.

Our most recent developments include:

Tackling communication channels from the get-go

To circumvent the problem of mass and last-minute emailing, as well as relying on social media promotions, we recognised that we needed a more concerted effort in sharing our content where academic colleagues gathered information from. This included for our team, designing documents in the preferred format for Academic colleagues and presenting edited information to create an intuitive user journey without information overload.

Focusing on Live Employer Briefs as one effective and scalable intervention

Our team acts as an intermediate between industry and employer contacts and Academics to develop bespoke briefs for modules which support authentic assessments. Live briefs are presenting a real-world problem faced by an employer and presented to the students for them to produce a response. The briefs are selected to match the content of modules. Academic colleagues are responsible for designing the assessment, but the brief content is brought on by the employer with the opportunity for students to engage with the employer in a pre-brief Q&A.

With this approach, students get to use entrepreneurial skills (problem-solving, research, communication, leadership, pitching an idea…) in an accessible setting. The students can then decide to pursue entrepreneurship further having had a bitesize experience of the skills and mindset that may be required to develop their own project. In the first trial Semester, we are delivering five Live Briefs (fully or partially embedded in a course) with eight external employers involved to benefit over 200 students overall.

A hackathon to transform coursework into entrepreneurial projects

Built over several years’ iterations, our team is introducing a new large-scale extracurricular event that brings together in-class learning, employability, and a package of funding opportunities available to develop projects. Instead of students having to choose carefully between investing time in extracurricular Enterprise activities and staying on top of their studies and assessments, students will now be able to bring their coursework project into the hackathon to further develop it. In designing this new hackathon, the main objective was to reduce the time commitment we asked of students by designing a bridge event where they could take their existing coursework project and with our team’s support could turn it into an entrepreneurial project in receipt of pre-seed funding to encourage their first steps. After the hackathon, the students would access the rest of the support services on offer.

What we have learnt so far:

Trial, error, and iterations

Not everyone communicates the same way and when a university is so diverse in its offering, so are the problems and potential solutions. Sometimes the response we get is a hard no, and that is okay. You might be surprised to see that if you don’t give up but go back with a different offer, it might turn into a resounding yes. We keep good records of communications and contacts (CRM is a reliable companion) and we iterate our pitch as we go along. What we keep in mind are the overall strategic objectives our team have been set. Not all asks can be addressed straight away, and sometimes collaborations can be parked temporarily until the timing is right. Diligently gathering insights from conversations with Academic colleagues may just be the best way to tackle institutional targets more effectively by bringing a wider pool of colleagues and services to work together.

Be hungry for feedback and evaluate impact

Our team now knows the best platforms where to engage with Academic colleagues and how to collaborate to offer their students a first experience of Enterprise in the curriculum. In my role, I experienced the benefits of building closer work relationships with Academic colleagues, and we have already seen that our collaborative approach appeals. I make a point of regularly engaging with colleagues to ensure I am in the know about how our team can best contribute to enhance their course experience. Alongside this work, we are building a robust feedback and evaluation framework to capture the short term and longer-term impact of this Academic Engagement work through event feedback questionnaires, as well as measuring how these interventions affect the student experience and graduate outcome results.

With this blog, I wanted to share our team’s experience and what we learnt along the way. There is no doubt that Academic Engagement and embedding Enterprise in the curriculum ultimately leads to engaging with a larger proportion of students and removes some of the common barriers. Aligning Academic Engagement interventions with the extra-curricular offer creates a valuable loop which increases overall engagement levels and avoids delivering activities in a vacuum where opportunities to seamlessly guide students to further support are missed.