The economic downturn, the credit crunch, international competitiveness and demographic changes are having a profound effect on the UK economy and a significant bearing on higher education. As a result, government policy towards supporting post-compulsory education is changing, as are expectations from the public sector, industry and learners.

There is no doubt that an entrepreneurial university culture is at the centre of UK competitiveness and can be a major influence on social cohesion. But what does an entrepreneurial university look like – and how do we get there?

An entrepreneurial university is characterised by a number of key factors: strong leadership that develops entrepreneurial capacities for all students and staff; strong ties with its external stakeholders that deliver added value; the delivery of entrepreneurial outcomes that make an impact to people and organisations; innovative learning techniques that inspire entrepreneurial action; open boundaries that encourage effective flows of knowledge between organisations; multi-disciplinary approaches to education that mimic real-world experience and focus on solving complex world challenges; and the drive to promote the application of entrepreneurial thinking and leadership.

Put simply, an entrepreneurial university is a place where entrepreneurship is part of the fabric of the institution. The extent to which this happens in UK higher education institutions varies. An NCGE study – Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education – mapped the provision of enterprise and entrepreneurship in higher education in England with a 96 per cent response rate from 127 universities. On average the student engagement rate in enterprise and entrepreneurship is 11 per cent so there is clearly scope for growth.

Business and management schools lead the way, with 61 per cent of students exposed to enterprise and entrepreneurship opportunities. The NCGE is very active in identifying the practices that support effective entrepreneurship development and in encouraging institutions to build their capacity for this and professional educator development. Overall, fewer than 50 per cent of universities showed defined entrepreneurial characteristics.

However, improvements are being made. Many universities offer an array of entrepreneurship development activities, but it is not always clear which institutional models and approaches really provide a sound platform for creating and sustaining the entrepreneurial university. The NCGE’s work is designed to help universities develop and embed these models and approaches. In world terms, the conditions for entrepreneurship in the UK are very good, and levels are relatively high. GEM UK, part of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, is the largest national study of entrepreneurial activity in the world. Its latest data shows that early stage entrepreneurial activity here tracks the G7 average, but remains lower than China, Brazil, the USA, and India.

In the US, a culture of entrepreneurship is more prevalent and higher education is more geared to encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Founda- Campuses initiative has granted nearly $50m (£28.6m) since 2003 to accelerate the development of cross-campus entrepreneurship programmes. The NCGE has developed its own approaches which are now attracting international attention. Chinese higher education has sought our expertise in creating the UK-China Entrepreneurship Educators Network, launched in May 2008 in Hangzou.

The NCGE’s mapping methodology has been adopted within the European Commission’s study across EU universities and its survey results will be revealed later in the autumn. To continue to sustain the UK economy and society, UK business must become more competitive.

We must create the right conditions for those areas identified as having the greatest potential for generating and sustaining economic growth – including universities and graduates – to thrive. The NCGE is supporting this, influencing policy and strategy, promoting cultural change in universities through initiatives to share best practice such as the International Entrepreneurship Educators Programme and the annual International Entrepreneurship Educators Conference, and through direct support for students through Flying Start Online, Rallies, Programmes and the Flying Start Global Entrepreneurs.

Success or failure will also have a bearing on the long-term survival of some universities and colleges as the sector begins to experience a steady demographic decline in 18-year-olds going to university from 2010. Higher education must play an increasing role responding to the needs of individuals at different stages in their lives and careers as they gain new skills to adapt to a competitive and fast paced knowledge economy.

Ian Robertson is the Chief executive, National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship (NCGE)