An Exploration of Start-up Competition Provision in UK Higher Education Institutions

Kayleigh Watson
Northumbria University

Start-up competitions have been employed globally as a method of extracurricular entrepreneurship education. Such provision appears to be underpinned by assumption that such competitions serve as a valuable entrepreneurial learning experience for those participating; despite evidence to support such a view being limited. Current understanding about the nature of start-up competitions and how they are used and deployed in practice as a method of extracurricular entrepreneurship education, particularly within a UK higher education context, remains limited. This is more broadly symptomatic of the under-researched nature of the start-up competition phenomenon. Exploration of the features that constitute start-up competition provision serves as a useful preclude to much needed endeavours to understand the efficacy of start-up competition programmes. It can be suggested that limited recognition about the diversity of what constitutes start-up competition provision might hamper such endeavours. This research seeks to explore extracurricular start-up competition provision in UK Higher Education Institutions. Guided by the following objectives;
- What outcomes do start-up competitions seek to achieve?
- What are the requirements for start-up competition entrance?
- What format do start-up competitions take?
- How are start-up competitions judged? And by whom?
In building a picture of current start-up competition provision in UK HEIs, the websites of all higher education institutions in the UK were reviewed in order to identify operational start-up competitions. Template analysis was then utilised as a method to organise and analyse the textual data pertaining to each competition identified.
Start-up competition programmes could be identified online at 40 of 167 UK Higher Education Institutions. The nature of these competition programmes was subject to widespread variation
The competitions examined primarily aimed to provide participants with the resources needed to create new ventures. Be it financial, human or social capital. Whilst many competitions sought to inspire entrepreneurial learning, specific learning outcomes were rarely stipulated. Some competitions were highly inclusive whilst others stipulated numerous requisites with regards to the status of the prospective participant and/or their business idea.
The format of the competitions explored differed in terms of their formality. A competition might take place as a one-off single day event where the participant pitches their idea to a judging panel and a winner is decided that day. Alternatively, a multi-stage start-up competition often takes place over several months and emphasise the progression of an idea and often the submission of a business plan, as well as delivery of a pitch. Multi-stage competitions were more likely to provide training and/or mentoring opportunities. Strong synergies between the focus of training/mentoring and the competencies which might be needed to undertake competition programme activities were apparent. As an activity, pitching was almost ubiquitous to competition format regardless of whether this was a single or multi-stage competition.
Competition judging tended to focus on the potential of a given business idea. A lack of transparency regarding the specific evaluative criteria which are used to make judging decisions and indeed who was making those decisions could be observed.
The findings of this work give rise to several observations and pertinent questions which are of importance to those who design, implement and research start-up competitions.
Whilst start-up competitions seek to inspire entrepreneurial learning, it is uncertain what the specific learning outcomes of competitions are. And indeed, whether the various formats of competition programmes are appropriate to engendering such learning? Given the close alignment between the business support provided as part of competition and the activities participants are expected to engage in as part of the competition, it can be questioned whether competitions are providing competencies which can transcend a competition context? Additionally, the widespread variation in terms of competition programmes which can be observed offers the potential for there to be variation in terms of effectiveness.
Inevitably start-up competitions require participants to compete against others in pursuit of the prizes/awards on offer. Presumption being that competition is the most effective means of attaining resources needed to start a venture. It might be questioned whether alternative non-competitive models a more effective means of stimulating successful goal attainment? What do or might these alternatives look like.