There is a constant pressure for universities to act as engines of sustainable development. The roles of universities are slowly shifting to embrace their third mission (besides teaching and research) and transform into entrepreneurial universities. Entrepreneurial university is characterised with taking a proactive stance, seizing opportunities in its immediate and wider surroundings and cross-fertilising ideas reaping both economic and societal rewards. As such, it can be argued that the model of entrepreneurial university can serve as a blueprint for attaining Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A large number of higher education institutions (HEIs) - universities and universities of applied sciences - are currently revising their institutional commitment to entrepreneurship and sustainability by adopting new missions, visions and strategic plans. A strong entrepreneurial university committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will act as an influential stakeholder and enabler in the regional entrepreneurship ecosystem. This vision can lay the path for the emergence of a “smart” universities (of applied sciences). The traditional university campus is transforming into a sustainable smart campus as universities (of applied sciences) are experimenting with the integration of new technologies and big data to improve how students live and learn on campus. Higher education thus becomes smart, being an ideal testing environment for new technology initiatives that benefit regional, city and campus residents.
The model of entrepreneurial university can serve as a blueprint for attaining Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Entrepreneurial lever of universities
Entrepreneurial university as a concept emerged in late 90s as it was brought to spotlight by Burton Clark. It serves as a framework that allows to understand the environment and its opportune characteristics for entrepreneurial activities to thrive. Entrepreneurial university can spur the growth of start-ups and encourage risk-taking among novel entrepreneurs. As suggested by Culkin (2016), entrepreneurial HEIs can act as ‘anchor institutions’, embedded within and committed to a region and regional development.
There is a growing interest in the entrepreneurial mindset within universities and universities of applied sciences. Entrepreneurship has gradually become a horizontal theme in educational and lifelong learning programs. The latter is underlined by the following two benchmark cases for Belgium.
StudentStartUP by PXL University of Applied Sciences and Hasselt University (Flanders, Belgium) and VentureLab by Université de Liège (Wallonia, Belgium) are dedicated initiatives towards entrepreneurship education and support which are designed for all students and recent graduates (alumni). The HEIs involved help students create and launch their entrepreneurial activities during their studies. They have embraced teaching strategies and learning environments which oﬀer targeted support for student entrepreneurs that aim at setting up a business regardless of a discipline, department or faculty. This approach involves alternative forms of entrepreneurship education via pedagogical innovations and practice-based learning experience gained outside the classroom.
The same evolution as for PXL is noticeable at Riga Technical University (RTU) in Latvia. RTU’s faculty of engineering economics and management runs a plethora of entrepreneurship and management programs. They focus on the rapidly changing global economic environment, technology and innovation and the opportunities for entrepreneurial activity. Students learn the entire process of starting a business including finding a profitable idea, gathering funding and resources, developing a plan, starting the business and managing the business thereafter. The master program is based on fundamentals of entrepreneurship activities – competitive product or service production and economically profitable distribution. The doctoral seminar (Ph.D.) on problems of business management focuses on open, closed and sustainable business models, regional ecosystems and smart cities.
RTU Design Factory is an innovation and entrepreneurship hub with high level prototyping labs as well as a team of highly experienced experts to provide support for entrepreneurs, CEOs and students for creating innovative ideas, products with high added value and various technical solutions. In addition, Riga Technical University and partners established a cooperation platform for students, companies and universities called «Demola Latvia».
The HEIs are active partners within public private partnership settings within their regional entrepreneurship or start-up ecosystem. The student entrepreneurs are provided with the necessary access to regional tech incubators and to dedicated workspaces for the time they need to start, accelerate and scale up. They link with other start-ups, scale-ups and technology corporates along with dedicated (international) business networks (Franco et al, 2019).
The HEIs are active partners within public private partnership settings within their regional entrepreneurship or start-up ecosystem.
Sustainable lever of universities
Given the proactive and problem-solving nature of entrepreneurial universities, it can be argued that these types of universities have a natural tendency to grapple with societal issues, rather than merely engaging in activities that only generate economic gain. And grappling with societal problems is a two-way alley. Apart from obvious benefits societies garner from university engagement, universities have obvious benefits too. For instance, engaging with the SDGs will benefit higher education institutions by helping them demonstrate university impact, capture demand for SDG-related education, build new partnerships, access new funding streams, and define a university that is responsible and globally aware. Education and research are explicitly recognised in a number of the SDGs. HEIs with their broad remit around the creation and dissemination of knowledge and their unique position within society, have a critical role to play in the achievement of the SDGs (SDSN, 2O2O).
PXL is involved in pulling this lever and is currently experimenting with the SDGs in a broad sense, ranging from:
future incorporation of SDG’s in the mission – vision – strategy 2021-2026;
making the organisation SDG-proof with the assistance of CIFAL-Flanders, a centre of expertise on the SDGs offering trainings, project development and coaching (https://cifal-flanders.org/). The purpose SDG Goal 4 is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all;
the sustainable enterprise charter by VOKA Chamber of Commerce Limburg partnership, focusing on SDG 1 – 2 – 8 – 11 – 17.
Riga Technical University has taken sequential steps towards sustainability (Medne, 2020). There is a clear policy commitment to achieving the SDG, among which SDG 8 and 17. The process started off with a first sustainability report in 2015, followed by the green campus concept 2018-2023 and finally the sustainable development concept 2020 integrating it within the strategy of the university.
Engaging with the SDGs will benefit higher education institutions by helping them demonstrate university impact, capture demand for SDG-related education, build new partnerships, access new funding streams, and define a university that is responsible and globally aware.
The growing sensitivity towards sustainability via the route of entrepreneurship – with the SDG framework as the main trigger – is a wonderful multiplier for partnerships, co-creation and regional development. By pulling both levers and striving for the best of both worlds is a strategy in which we enjoy the advantages of different things at the same time. It is our strong conviction that the higher education institutions of the future will be smart, sustainable and entrepreneurial. In doing this, they will contribute to the wellbeing of future generations. By abandoning the siloed approach of entrepreneurship/sustainability dichotomy universities are liberated and can undergo a transformation that allows them to make both economic and societal impacts.
Culkin, N. (2016). Entrepreneurial universities in the region: the force awakens ? International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research, 22(1), 4-16.
Franco, D., De Vocht, A., Kuppens, T., Martens, H., Thewys, T., Vanheusden, B., Schepers, M. and Segers, J.P. (2019), Sustainable Education: Essential Contributions to a ‘Quadruple Helix’ Interaction and Sustainable Paradigm Shift in D.B. Zandvliet (Ed.), Culture and Environment: Weaving New Connections, Researching Environmental Learning, vol. 4, Leiden: Brill Publishers. https://brill.com/abstract/title/54643
Medne, A. (2020). What we can learn from introducing Smart City concept in Universities ? Riga Technical University: presentation for the doctoral seminar “Problems of Business Management”.
SDSN Australia/Pacific (2017): Getting started with the SDGs in universities: A guide for universities, higher education institutions, and the academic sector. Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Edition. Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Australia/Pacific, Melbourne.
About the author
Prof. Dr. Jean-Pierre Segers
Acting Dean of Business, PXL University of Applied Sciences
Prof. dr. Jean-Pierre Segers is the acting dean of Business at PXL University of Applied Sciences. He is a visiting professor at Riga Technical University – Faculty of Engineering Economics & Management (Latvia) and a research fellow at Université de Liège (HEC-ULg). He is the founder of StudentStartUP at PXL.