Higher ed experts worry about future of unis: Business founders weigh in on what’s missing from courses

Kate Morris

Adore Beauty founder Kate Morris

Some of Australia’s most prominent figures in higher education say the university sector needs a big overhaul if it’s going to survive the future landscape in which young people skip formal learning and go straight into their own businesses.

Speaking at a conference backed by the Australian Financial Review this week, University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis told crowds that the system was facing a new kind of student.

“We are going to have to remember that brilliant teenager who set up his own IT company in the US and when asked about going to university says, ‘Well that would obviously be a waste of my time, why would I do that?’” Davis said, reports Fairfax.

The remarks come as some question what skills Australia needs most in the new start-up world – coding abilities, or the ability to execute a project well.

This morning SmartCompany spoke to several company founders about their university experiences and how these relate to their million dollar businesses today. A key observation is the lack of real-world project experience on offer from three year degree programs in the business management space.

“I studied a business degree, which I didn’t feel equipped me at all for my business journey,” Adore Beauty founder Kate Morris says.

“I think practical learning is essential when it comes to entrepreneurship, and the toughest thing to learn is the resilience and adaptability that’s required when your idea or product faces rejection. This can’t be learned from sitting in a lecture theatre.”

Founder of background check provider National Crime Check Martin Lazarevic  agrees that real world case studies were largely absent from his studies until he started working towards an MBA degree – and when it comes to things like how to successfully raise capital, there was virtually no advice on offer, he says.

“There needs to be a pragmatic approach by looking at companies as case studies which I found was invaluable in understanding how to set up and run a successful startup,” he says.

Professor Davis suggested to the crowd at this week’s summit that universities could see the rise of counter-offers from Australian start-ups and corporates, similar to the situation in Silicon Valley where big tech companies court high school graduates with better starting salaries and support if they reject offers to Ivy League schools and instead come to straight to work in the business.

What are unis missing?

Company owners have told SmartCompany over the past few months that the problem with university courses isn’t that they don’t want to attend – it’s that the courses themselves start by teaching students the theory of business and too often don’t provide opportunities to put those ideas into practice in a meaningful way until after graduation.

Co-founder of the Sauced Pasta Bar chain Sylvan Spatarel said last month that he went to business school eager to master the basics and big ideas, but after close to a decade of studying, the most useful thing he did to progress his own career was start a business from scratch.

“I spent eight years studying, but the best education has been starting my own business. The reason I did the business course first was that I just loved business,” he said. “The thing those courses don’t teach you is getting a business off the ground.”

Then there are the technical skills required to boost growth and understand how a business is operating, with some founders believing more can be done to integrate these skills into the broader curriculum to start with.

“The world of practicality and the world of reality are drifting further apart,” says Media33 co-founder Michael Lambert. “Business plans, marketing plans, cash flow are all taught to a certain level, but the realities of running a business and getting to the critical point of growth, needs a growth plan.”

Then there’s the belief that the traditional degree structures operate can take away from the problem solving required to expand.

“I believe universities need to aspire for the foundational idea that learning can be excitingly chaotic and unstructured,” says co-founder of digital storytelling and advertising agency S1T2, Tash Tan. “Sometimes the very nature of a [university] organisation works against innovation.”

Big data continues to be a buzz word across the board, but co-founder of digital agency Digital360 Adam Laurie believes more can be done on this front too.

“What we’re seeing in the business community is a lack of understanding of how to provide actionable data insights to the right people, at the right time,” he says.

“To achieve this, business graduates will require an understanding of technology.”

As academics workshop how to best place themselves to capture new students in an era where “innovation” is a common post-graduation goal, it seems action is something all company founders would like to see more of.

“Students need to be tackling real projects,” says Morris.

*This article was updated at 12:30pm on November 18 to include comments from Media33 managing director Michael Lambert.