Educating a nation in self-employment

Educating a nation in self-employment


Self-employment is rising at a rate of knots. The latest monthly figures report that almost 5 million people work this way. And this growth is primarily organic. People are choosing to work this way because they want to, because it suits the way they live and because it gives them control over their lives.

But what if we wanted, as a nation, to supercharge growth in self-employment – empowering more people to make the decision to set up on their own. How do you let people in on the labour market’s best-kept secret? And do people understand the many forms self-employment can take?

Universities are a good place to start. Students and recent graduates are ideally positioned to launch solo businesses. Research also shows that the vast majority of highly skilled independent professionals are educated to university level, so the talent is there. The problem is that many graduates are lacking one key attribute: knowing where to start.

In September, IPSE attended the International Entrepreneurship Educators Conference (IEEC) in Liverpool. This annual event brings together enterprise and entrepreneurship educators and practitioners, policy makers, researchers and employability professionals from around the world. It provides a platform to share best practice, and to maximise the impact of enterprise and entrepreneurship in education. It was very encouraging to meet with and hear from the professionals who are working with students and graduates to provide support in these areas.

Running a one-person company requires a grounding in accountancy, in marketing, in legal issues and much more. These are not found on many degree curriculums so students need to look elsewhere. Despite many universities offering valuable business resources through their enterprise centres and employability teams – as was clearly shown at the IEEC – just 2% of freelancers told us they learnt about freelancing at university. It seems that a communication barrier, and perhaps a terminology barrier as well, still exists.

At the IEEC, Lydia Wakefield, IPSE’s Education and Training Manager, delivered a workshop to address this. The focus was on supporting freelance students who don’t necessarily associate themselves with being an ‘entrepreneur’ or a ‘start-up’. The packed room on Friday morning demonstrated that universities recognise that this is an issue.

Lydia said universities need to reach out to those students who have serious freelance potential: “Most universities have enterprise hubs and entrepreneurship support, but many students either don’t realise it exists or aren’t aware of how it could benefit them. Many assume it’s just for the business and finance students, not for designers, translators or software engineers.”

Language plays an important role in the take-up of business support services. University bodies set up to help students start out alone typically have names like ‘incubator’, ‘accelerator’ and so on – which sound more suited to ambitious start-ups seeking big capital, than to solo graduates looking to launch a freelance career. Terms such as ‘being your own boss’ and ‘working for yourself’ broaden the scope.

Dragons’ Den-style programmes are popular with universities, but there are lots of students who don’t see themselves as the next Richard Branson but might still start out alone,” says Lydia. “They have different motivations for becoming self-employed. Growing to a multi-national level might not be a priority for them. And if they aren’t focused on gaining investment, they’re unlikely to see any value in these kinds of schemes.”

These students may not be coming up with a new idea, but they’re still using their skillset to work for themselves, and they need support. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), at least 4% of students become self-employed, freelance or start their own business within just six months of graduating.

Linda Marchant is the Employability Co-ordinator at Nottingham Trent University School of Arts. Her team are setting an example, placing independent working at the fore of the curriculum in a range of subjects. “We outline the route our own graduates have taken, which includes many examples of those who’ve started their own businesses and enterprises,” Linda says. “We make sure the pathway to freelancing and entrepreneurship is visible – you can’t be what you can’t see!

“Students benefit in a number of ways. The first is allowing exploration of ideas, which builds confidence. Secondly, they benefit from enhanced skills and knowledge as well as a set of resources they can call on to support their thinking. They also benefit hugely from expanding their networks and making connections with others who’ve followed the same route already,” says Linda.

Simon Best is Programme Leader of MSc Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship at Middlesex University. “Many universities are geared towards the notion of Graduate Careers. However, these careers are changing as a new wave of automation takes place. Accountants, lawyers, doctors, nurses and even teachers require different skills and higher levels of flexibility. As a result, more and more students will graduate into freelancing. Therefore, universities are going to have to begin to embed within their programmes content that develops enterprising skills as much as job-specific skills.”

Middlesex, along with Nottingham Trent, are two of a growing number of universities that are recognising changing attitudes to work. “We inform students that these changes mean that many will need multiple streams of income, one of which is likely to be self-employment. And even if they don’t become self-employed, they are likely to work for a small business. This means they are much closer to the decision-making process than in a large organisation,” says Simon.

If we’re going to see more graduates launching freelance careers, we need more students to realise that there’s help available and that self-employment is a viable career option. Everyone has a role to play: universities must find new ways to communicate with potential young independent professionals; organisations like IPSE must continue to offer expertise; and policy makers must ensure that the UK’s business environment is an appealing place in which to go solo.

Words by Mark Williams, IPSE Press & PR Officer. Mark regularly writes about education and training for the self-employed, but you can also find him penning city guides as he’s the travel guru among us.

IPSE has now launched a University Partnership program. Read more about this on the IPSE website.