Dr Track Dinning, Leader at the Liverpool Business School of the Liverpool John Moores University in England, personally sees entrepreneurship education as being about developing competencies. According to her, the business start-up or business plan module is always secondary to upholding the education ethos.

During a Think Tank session that explored the topic Entrepreneurship Learning and Teaching for the Market at the recent EDHE Lekgotla 2022, Dr Dinning was offering her perspective on the points made by her peers in response to the question: How might commercialisation contribute to the curriculum transformation in entrepreneurship education – the lessons, challenges and how to mitigate these in an African context?

She concurred with Dr Shore that in developing the curriculum, institutions need to know the purpose of entrepreneurship education.

Asking whether this was about creating business start-ups or spin-outs, or whether this was about developing competencies, Dr Dinning (left) suggested that entrepreneurship education afforded space for both outcomes, as long as the student understands the purpose of the module.

She also agreed with Mr Dray’s point on language, saying, “the terminology needs to resonate with the student… because even the word ‘entrepreneurship’ could cause confusion.”

The point that Dr Shore had raised on some engineering students not being interested in starting businesses led the moderator, Dr Van Rensburg, to ask how institutions were then meant to promote commercial entrepreneurial education.

Mr Terry Dray (right), Director: Employability and Employer Engagement at Keele University in England, offered lived perspectives from his institution as a response. He said that integrating inter and multidisciplinarity in non-technical and technical subjects had increased students’ appetite for scalable business start-ups, leading to giant projects.

This happens through their Research Innovations Support Programme, which offers students opportunities to undertake extra-curricular activities. Within that programme, they support local Small, Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to either innovate their process, system or product. The programme invites students to pitch solutions and take the challenge from the said SME. They receive support from academics and the university by giving them access to machinery and equipment that the SME might not have, to carry out the solutions.

He said the programme has been running for five years and is European Union funded. Dray added that hundreds of students have taken up the challenge, each receiving a bursary payment to fulfil it. He said that levels the playing field, especially for poorer students. Furthermore, this initiative has attracted students from the health faculty, such as medics and neuroscientists, and even law students, who are thriving in successful businesses.

The second example he shared concerned their business school. Mr Dray said the institution allows students to take on a piece of applied company research. It is a similar model as above, where the student works closely with a local SME. Keele University has made the programme attractive by enabling the conversion of that research to a dissertation with equal academic credits.

Mr Dray said that the programmes and students’ outcomes must be academically robust. He said working through such projects and helping businesses innovate in a real-world setting is demanding. The trick was to research and present the problem well and to address and implement the suggested solutions. “That gives a kind of rigour to the whole process and stimulates quite a lot of commercially-minded entrepreneurialism in the student thereafter,” he said.

Furthermore, Dr Van Rensburg asked, how could a multidisciplinary approach contribute to commercialisation initiatives from students within an entrepreneurship curriculum?

Professor Janice Limson (left), Director: Biotechnology Innovation Centre at Rhodes University, explained that over five years ago, they switched the approach in the biotechnology department, adding working with communities to entrepreneurship education and science engagement. She said traditionally, biotechnology students and lecturers would consult scientific journals to help formulate research questions.

However, through this model, they interact directly with people who are impacted and could be recipients of the new technology. “Those people are now providing localised perspectives that our students would otherwise not be getting,” she said.

Professor Limson said engaging communities directly has, in some cases, substantially helped to shape and sometimes alter the direction of research.

“I think this also speaks to a larger school of thought – the European Union framework around responsible research and innovation as well as South Africa’s science engagement framework,” she said.

Furthermore, she said this takes their students out of their comfort zones and teaches them skills they would not necessarily learn in lecture halls and laboratories.

In terms of a multidisciplinary approach, Professor Limson said that Rhodes University has a Community Engagement division through which her department interacts with other faculties, such as humanities and social sciences. Often, these disciplines have long-established relationships with communities around the institution. Therefore, their biotechnology students then group themselves with students in those faculties to work together in conducting their research. In particular, she said working with journalism students, as communication brokers, has been helpful in the packaging of information.

“While this has also been very valuable for our students, it has been pivotal for us as academics to rethink how we do science. It is challenging us to look back again at our curriculum and the way in which we do things, so that, ultimately, our students do research that might lead to a product that will directly impact and positively benefit society,” she concluded.

Tailor modules to student needs

Contributing to the debate, Dr Abodiun Egbetokun (left), Assistant Director: Research at the National Centre for Technology Management in Nigeria, spoke about the risk of placing emphasis on what can be provided to students as entrepreneurship education. He said it somewhat overlooks the reality that students may have particular needs, which the initiatives could possibly not meet. His point was about tailoring the activities in ways that are responsive to students’ needs or preferences.

He said what he had seen working well were group competitions that challenge students to push beyond their disciplinary boundaries. For instance, tasking them to tackle problems such as climate change or sustainability.  “By definition, these problems are multidisciplinary. You need people to work together across different disciplinary areas to be able to deal with them.

“So, throwing up the opportunity to students to organise themselves into groups, and work towards a prize or an award creates a challenge that makes them want to work together across disciplinary boundaries. Hopefully, the skills and approaches that they learn, and the people they interact with, in the process, stay with them even after their education,” he concluded.

Test-drive new programmes away from the academy

Mr Dray shared that he had learnt, in the development of new programmes over the years, the importance of road testing them away from the academy — what he referred to as a safe space — outside the curriculum and externally funded, to circumvent risks to the institution.

Recently, in partnership with the University of Birmingham, they had road-tested the interdisciplinary approach, mainly around student knowledge exchange and community-engaged learning.

In this programme, they had run a four-day boot camp with 80 students from both institutions at two different locations, but in parallel. The students worked with various problems concerning a fishing village in Saint Lucia, in the Caribbean. These problems ranged from a polluted bay and marine conservation through introducing a new system of local democracy to developing a new tourism and development strategy for the village.

Using the United Nations’ SDGs as a framework, the students had exceeded their expectations. The overall winning teams were chosen from each university to present their solutions to the Lucian High Commission in London. At the time of the EDHE Lekgotla, the Keele University winning team was in the process of travelling to Saint Lucia, to implement their solution.

As a result, academic departments of geography, geology, and environment, together with the business school, were planning to integrate enterprise challenge approaches within their curriculums.

Also adding his voice again, Dr Adam Shore (left), Director: Business School and Management at the Liverpool John Moores University in England, said “In terms of contributing to commercialisation initiatives, that multidisciplinary approach works because, with reference to the engineering student not wanting to be the entrepreneur, the business student did want to be the entrepreneur. Often, when you do mix those disciplines, you see how the complementary skills help to take an idea and bring in a commercial aspect to it.”

In conclusion, Dr Track Dinning shared that before joining the business school, she had worked in sports and covered numerous modules where students had to tackle projects on industry challenges. She said these activities helped students develop entrepreneurial skills. Furthermore, Dr Dinning said they would have their students work with education and food nutrition students to devise solutions.

She said such an approach brings a different dimension to teamwork.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa

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