In the spotlight:

Name: Gareth Trainer

Location: Newcastle upon Tyne

Occupation: Assistant Director (Enterprise and Entrepreneurship) at Newcastle University Careers Service, and Director and Treasurer of Enterprise Educators UK

You are an influential individual within the enterprise education space. What does ‘enterprise education’ mean to you, and why do you think it’s important?

Having helped to author them, I should probably reference the QAA’s guidance on enterprise and entrepreneurship education from 2012 which I think, even after five years, is still a great way of describing enterprise education:

“Enterprise education aims to produce graduates with the mindset and skills to come up with original ideas in response to identified needs and shortfalls, and the ability to act on them. In short, having an idea and making it happen. Enterprise skills include taking the initiative, intuitive decision making, making things happen, networking, identifying opportunities, creative problem solving, innovating, strategic thinking, and personal effectiveness. Enterprise education extends beyond knowledge acquisition to a wide range of emotional, intellectual, social, and practical skills.”

To me, enterprise refers to aspects of a person that makes them creative, innovative, adaptable, resourceful and willing and able to make things happen. Enterprise education occurs when we create or encounter a learning experience that draws out one or more of these elements, allowing a student to experience enterprise and reflect on what it means to them and their personal and professional aspirations. Increasing numbers of students choose to apply their enterprise to a new venture of their own, but enterprise is of benefit to wider employability and the success of other organisations and communities.

It is always incredibly satisfying to see enterprising spirit grow in someone as a result of their experiences, but at the core of it for me is recognising how enterprise education can change a person’s sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy. You can experience and you can learn, but having increased confidence to do and review shows what impact enterprise education can have.

How did you first become involved with enterprise education?

I was finishing my undergraduate dissertation and – naively – believed we had discovered something that could be turned into a service that would help people. In trying to find out how, and ultimately realising it wasn’t going to be possible, I discovered a different way of looking at the subject I was studying. Suddenly, the lecture notes and research projects had a new life about them; the knowledge applied in the right way with the right skills could solve problems and make meaning for people. Seems obvious now, but this is when I became interested in making sure that as many of my colleagues as possible experienced enterprise.

Following a sabbatical year in the students’ union, campaigning to help students get the maximum value out of their time at university, I got a job at the Careers Service to introduce an extracurricular programme developing enterprise skills and supporting those with self-employment aspirations. My team was heavily involved in curriculum development too, and so right from the word go I was involved in embedding enterprise and employability into the student experience, working with academics, employers and local business support agencies. At the same time national networks of enterprise educators were forming around government funded initiatives, and as soon as I started to get involved in these activities I was hooked!

How has enterprise education changed over the years, and how does it benefit students today?

Since 2001, when I first engaged with enterprise education, I have seen it become increasingly visible and supported within higher education in particular. Early interventions by bodies like the UK Science Enterprise Challenge (now Enterprise Educators UK), the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship (now NCEE) and the Cambridge-MIT Institute (which was funded by the government until 2006), established a platform for enterprise educators to self-identify, share good practice and develop professionally across traditional disciplines. This meant that more students were experiencing enterprise education and doing incredible things as a result; creating the stories that have for years inspired institutions to invest further in the agenda.

I was fortunate to be involved in the creation of the National Enterprise Educator Awards (NEEAs), as well as the QAA guidance, which have both helped to legitimise enterprise education as a pan-disciplinary pedagogy and scholarly profession. All of this change is made evident when you read a university’s learning and teaching, or student experience, strategies and find aspiration objectives about enterprise. I was particularly proud when Newcastle University won the TARGETjobs Award for the Best Employability Strategy in 2017, as this was developed by a huge crowd of stakeholders from across the University. Enterprise education is now acknowledged as being of strategic importance to students and their institutions.

Gareth Trainer and colleagues collect TARGETjobs Award for the Best Employability Strategy 2017

Gareth Trainer and colleagues collect TARGETjobs Award for the Best Employability Strategy 2017

For many students – and, indeed, for a great deal of lecturers – a degree (and the subject being studied) is an end in itself. However, you argue that entrepreneurial learning should be embedded within every curriculum so that enterprise skills are a norm amongst graduates. The question is, how?

That’s a very good question and the answer will often differ depending on the subject being studied. Enterprise can take on different forms in different disciplines, and that contextualisation is actually very important in my experience. As an enterprise educator, you have to deal with the terminology issue pretty quickly, using consultancy and coaching skills to identify the best way to present enterprise. It is then often a case of looking for opportunities within the curriculum to try something different and introduce experiential elements that are work-related or based around problems and opportunities in related industries or communities. It is worth remembering that many of the lecturers and students will be nudged out of their comfort zones, so establishing a safe space in which to experiment with enterprise is crucial and can be difficult. EEUK host an excellent online knowledge base on how to embed enterprise across disciplines and I recommend taking a look to see how others have done it. The ETC Toolkit can be accessed from here.

Your work on Newcastle University’s enterprise skills and business start-up support agenda has helped launch over 300 businesses (and counting!). Why is it important that students have access to such services, and how can they use them to their best advantage?

We know from graduate employers that enterprise skills can make a crucial difference to a student’s employability and, as such, any student seeking graduate level work after graduation should develop their enterprise as well as career management skills. Our enterprise development opportunities are accessed as part of the Careers Service offerings, as well as within increasing numbers of modules and degree programmes at Newcastle. We work very hard to make sure that students have a positive experience with enterprise but, in most cases, it still requires the students to opt in, so we ensure that there are easily-accessible, no-obligation ways of engaging.

The same is true for the support we offer to those who want to be freelance, self-employed or start a business. Our new look START UP service can help whether a student has an idea for a business or not, and provides low risk ways of understanding what is involved and how it works. Many industries are changing such that the only way to get in to some of them is through a self-employed route, so it is essential that this increasingly popular option is supported and made visible. There will always be personal and professional risk, but universities generally provide the most supportive environments in which to try and, indeed, fail. Very often all it takes to get started is a conversation.

There’s an age-old debate about whether entrepreneurs are born or made. Can you weigh into this?

Everyone has an innate potential to be enterprising, but this can be repressed by the environment and the circumstances in which a person finds themselves. I believe that enterprise education can unlock this potential, and inspire and equip people with what they need to be entrepreneurial. We know that a supportive environment is important to making a success of a venture, and even feeling able to give it a go. Effective enterprise education can also provide this supportive environment. Lots of people are born into highly entrepreneurial environments – whether cultural or familial – from which they get all they need to give something a go, but I believe everyone benefits from enterprise education, even if it’s learning that entrepreneurship is not for them.

For students who don’t want to be entrepreneurs, what other benefits does enterprise education provide?

As I mentioned earlier, there are huge employability benefits from engaging with enterprise education, and the relevant skills are very often quoted by employers as key qualities that they look for. On a very practical level, enterprise education often involves learning by doing, and these experiences can provide great scenarios to discuss at job interviews, for example. I also think that enterprise facilitates different kinds of learning. As I found as an undergraduate, being able to ask yourself, “So what? Why does this matter to anyone?” challenges you to think differently about what you are studying and, in my experience, can bring it to life and open up post-study options that didn’t occur to you before.

Gareth Trainer hosts a Rise Up dinner for new and experienced entrepreneurs

Gareth Trainer hosts a Rise Up dinner for new and experienced entrepreneurs

Where do you hope to see enterprise education in five years’ time?

In five years’ time I hope to see enterprise embedded across the whole educational landscape, but this will bring with it significant challenges, from how compulsory education is structured through to the resources universities put in place to provide enterprising learning environments. I therefore think the spread of enterprise will cause educators to go back to some fundamental principles which, if tackled correctly, will make enterprise education the benchmark for good learning and teaching across the sector and beyond.

What does a typical day look like in the world of Gareth Trainer?

When I have one I’ll let you know! I don’t think there is a typical structure to my days, but I try to start them by catching up with members of our fabulous Enterprise Team and wider Career Service colleagues. At some point in my day I bump into a start-up or two, working in our START UP Space. In-between and around this could be anything from meetings with academic colleagues, discussions with my fellow senior managers, endorsement conversations with international graduates, occasional session delivery to groups of students, or video chats with enterprise educators from across the country. There is often a workshop or networking event thrown in too. To be honest, I think ‘typical days’ are the kind that enterprise educators secretly try to avoid!

And finally, Gareth, tell us: if you were an animal, what would you be and why?

Don’t laugh, but I’ve thought about this carefully and… I think if I were an animal I would most likely be an otter! Most otters have strong family groups in which there is very little hierarchy when it comes to getting things done. Probably more importantly, they have fun and are known to enjoy laughing. They are also resourceful and like to experiment and make things to benefit other otters, such as slides that help get them into the water more quickly. They work hard, have a laugh and enjoy the outdoors.