October 2010

The rise of grassroots entrepreneurial movements

Tata is a founding sponsor of the National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs (NACUE) — an organisation that gives enterprise societies a platform to connect at a national level. A report by Matt Smith, executive director, policy and education, NACUE

Unprecedented challenges facing students and graduates today make developing enterprise skills and business start-up potential more important than ever. To develop a truly entrepreneurial economy capable of surmounting the challenges of the new political and economical landscape, students must be equipped with enterprise skills that prepare them to experiment, take risks and adapt to continual change.


The entrepreneurship education movement has been working for many years now to shake up the tired and outdated education system, and although progress is slow, evidence of its considerable impact can be found across UK universities. There are the enterprise centres that work within universities to coordinate extra-curricular activities to inspire students and develop entrepreneurial skills; incubators which support students launching ventures; and educators who work to embed entrepreneurship into the curriculum to benefit all students. A closer look however, shows patchy delivery and uncertainty within the community surrounding sustainable funding in the coming squeeze.

So while educators, universities and funding bodies grapple with the challenges around accelerating change and achieving sustainability, the students are wasting no time to build the necessary support networks from the ground up. In doing so, they are also forming the new institutions that will influence the education and political landscapes over the coming generation.

Student-led enterprise clubs and societies can be found operating in universities across the world, but certainly with no greater density than in the UK. Following the very first UK society launching at the University of Cambridge in 1999, numbers have skyrocketed to over 70 such societies today. In universities big and small, across the country, such groups work to drive a grassroots entrepreneurial movement within their institution, bringing together talented and passionate students from across departments to create peer-led enterprise communities where enterprising students and young entrepreneurs support, empower and enable each other. Through these societies students are connecting across disciplines and building valuable connections, knowledge and skills from their peers and a wide range of local entrepreneurs, alumni, business support organisations and others.

As students’ interest in enterprise and entrepreneurship increases year-on-year so does the innovation coming out of the enterprise societies. Recent innovations include launching intensive business start-up programmes, micro-funds, seed accelerators, student-led incubators and even society-owned ventures.

With an obvious bias though, the convening of these societies to launch the National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs (NACUE) in 2009 was surely their greatest achievement. Launched in May 2009, NACUE gives all enterprise societies a platform to connect at a national level to share ideas and celebrate their collective achievements. NACUE has been supported in its growth by a range of businesses that place entrepreneurship at their core. This includes Tata who joined as a founding sponsor in May 2009.

Since its launch, NACUE has also carved out an important role advocating on behalf of enterprise societies and young entrepreneurs. For the very first time, an informed student voice is recognised by government and educators and engaged in critical discussions around entrepreneurship in higher education. Not only does this bring a much needed student voice into discussions, but it also ensures that the contributions of enterprise societies are recognised and their role is cemented in future plans.

It is clear that in absence of coordinated action from the top, the students are accelerating change from the bottom up. Welcome to the age of the student enterprise society.

Matt Smith, executive director, policy and education, NACUE