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Students burdened enough without being pushed into starting new businesses
2014-12-22
By Doug Young

A NEW program to encourage entrepreneurship at the city’s universities has been in the headlines these last few weeks, and looks like a good idea.

But the new initiatives at several of our local schools have met with a lukewarm reception, probably because they look like yet another way to add stress to the lives of our city’s youth who already feel incredible pressure to succeed.

As a teacher in one of Shanghai’s major universities, I get to see the huge pressures that many of our students face on a daily basis as they try to satisfy the huge expectations heaped on them by both their parents and society. Encouraging students to take time off from school to start companies would simply add one more thing for them to stress out about.

That’s not to say that this kind of entrepreneurship shouldn’t be encouraged at our universities. The United States is filled with cases of businesses that were hatched at universities, including search engine Yahoo, founded by Stanford students Jerry Yang and David Filo in 1994, and social networking giant Facebook, founded at Harvard by Mark Zuckerberg and several of his classmates a decade later.

The US is also filled with examples of university students who work with private sector entrepreneurs to commercialize technologies developed in campus laboratories. But in most or all of these cases, students are encouraged to complete their studies and work slowly and methodically to realize their dreams, rather than rush too quickly to succeed.

Then of course there are the famous cases of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs, both of whom notoriously left university before completing their degrees to embark on careers that would make them two of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs. But even in those cases, Gates and later Jobs left school for different personal reasons, and neither was encouraged at an institutional level to make that important decision.

The Shanghai program to encourage entrepreneurship is the offshoot of a broader recent national call to encourage entrepreneurship among China’s youth.

As part of that call, universities are being encouraged to help find ways for students with good business plans to take time off from school or receive lighter course loads to give them time to pursue those ideas.

One of the earliest schools to answer the call in Shanghai was Jiao Tong University, which set up an entrepreneurship policy allowing students to take time off from school to develop their business ideas, usually a year.

But the program has met with a lukewarm reception, with only three to five students taking part each year in its first four years, according to a Jiao Tong administrator. Another year-old entrepreneurship program at Tongji University has also met with a tepid response, with only a single student currently using the program to test out a business idea.

Obviously both of these programs are quite young, and perhaps require some changes and better publicity to boost their enrollment. But as someone who works with many of these students every day, I would argue that most already feel quite a bit of stress and are probably reluctant to take on yet more pressure by starting their own businesses.

Job search starts earlier in China

Classes are always the biggest form of pressure, but on top of that there are all kinds of internships and other research that students are also encouraged or required to do. Added to that is the final pressure of finding a job once they graduate.

In the US, this kind of job search is also a very serious matter, and students usually begin looking in earnest during the last semester of their final year of college or graduate school. But at my university the search seems to begin much earlier, sometimes as early as the junior year, and turns into a frenzy of resume submissions and interviews by the time students reach their final semester.

All of that brings us back to the original idea of entrepreneurship programs, and what place they have at universities here in Shanghai and around China. I fully agree that there’s a place for such programs not only in China but at any university, as they’re an important stepping stone between academia and the real business world.

But rather than taking students away from school, such programs might be better conceived if they helped to bring together experienced entrepreneurs with aspiring ones, perhaps in the classroom or even outside in the form of internships or other cooperation.

At the end of the day, university should be a time for learning and experimentation in a relaxed and stimulating atmosphere. There’s plenty of time after that for entrepreneurship, which can prove equally rewarding but also comes with stresses that are probably best left separate from the education experience.

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