Monday, November 12, 2012


Earlier this year, I was delighted to work with the OECD on a project to examine the state of entrepreneurship education in Tunisia.

It was an intensive but enjoyable experience that enabled the international team to examine the strategies adopted by Tunisian universities to encourage greater entrepreneurial activities, as well as the start-up support offered within enterprise centres and incubators.

As expected, the main conclusions from the research showed that the key to success in developing greater number of new businesses depends on increasing the intensity of entrepreneurship support for those students who have the motivation, ideas and capabilities to make a success of entrepreneurship.

However, in various focus group meetings with other students, it was clear that the main concern of those graduating was not always whether they could start a business, but whether they could actually get a job within an existing small firm.

Indeed, one of the key issues identified in a number of universities was the gap between the theoretical competence that students acquire in class and the competences needed within the workplace, particularly in the private sector.

In particular, higher education institutions in Tunisia have been functioning without any real medium-term plan for how to manage this issue and there was clear lack of appreciation, from the university sector, that the majority of SMEs in Tunisia are family-owned enterprises and have very little understanding of the benefits that graduates can bring to their businesses.

This gap in knowledge between universities and industry is clearly not limited to Tunisia and there have been various initiatives developed to try and close this gap across the World so that students can learn and appreciate the competences required by industry.

One of the more successful, and one that I recommended as an exemplar to the Tunisian Government, is the Graduate Opportunities (GO) programme.

It’s not often that initiatives that originated in Wales are seen as best practice but, in my opinion, this is a successful intervention that could be easily adapted for the encouragement of greater links between industry and universities in Tunisia or any other developing country.

So what is GO Wales?

Simply put, it is a scheme run by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales that makes it possible for students and graduates to develop their careers in Wales through quality work experience and training opportunities with businesses.

The project contributes significantly to the development of a knowledge economy in Wales enabling businesses to have access to higher-level skills and fresh ideas to support growth and development.

The flagship programme - Work Placements for Employers - offers businesses the opportunity to employ someone with a degree (or studying for a degree) to complete a project while working for a company for around 10 weeks. Placements are primarily aimed at SMEs, as they often do not have the time or resources to develop ideas and new projects and, more relevantly, often do not have the necessary specialist skills to complete a specific task. By hosting a placement, each business receives a choice of subsidised high quality students and graduates with specific knowledge and skills that can add value to the business during a 6-10 week project.

It sounds an excellent scheme but more importantly, it works.

For example, a recent evaluation of GO Wales by the consultants DTZ found that all of the identified objectives for the project are either being achieved or have been achieved. In terms of hard impacts, it has created 1,071 jobs, £2.7 million in wage premiums and £42.4 million of business turnover in Wales over the period 2009-2011.

It has also helped to bring about changes in the perception of the owners of small firms regarding the role of graduates in their business that could create the potential for further benefits in the future. There are more positive attitudes from small firms towards employing graduates, working within SMEs, undertaking further training and development activity, and engaging with universities. And given that more than a third of participating businesses utilising work placements had never previously employed a graduate, this is an excellent outcome for the programme.

However, the one problem identified by DTZ is that not all universities had used the programme effectively to support local businesses. Whilst Cardiff and Swansea Universities had exceeded their targets, other higher education institutions were behind the curve when it came to placing graduates into businesses via GO Wales.

As a result, there still remain some challenges in hitting the output indicators set by sponsors such as European Structural Funds. However, feedback from participants and delivery staff in respect of the operation of the project has generally been very positive and it seems to be making a real difference to those companies that get the opportunity to participate in the scheme.

So will Tunisia adopt this excellent programme?

Well, the final report has been submitted and we had a wide-ranging discussion with government officials and academic leaders in September on how best to create a culture of entrepreneurship amongst young people and small businesses.

Certainly, they could do worse than to adapt a programme from Wales that brings tangible benefits to both groups.