Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Cape Town, commended the intensive and structured entrepreneurship activities at her institution for the success of the students who pursue such a journey. She was showcasing UCT’s best practices under the theme Entrepreneurship Learning and Teaching for the Market at the recent EDHE Lekgotla 2022 that was hosted by Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha.
She touched on how higher education institutions continue to be perceived through limited, traditional lenses as training grounds for the workplace. “We know that does not work anymore,” she said, referring to the phenomenon of graduates standing with placards on street corners, pleading for jobs.
She said such occurrences somewhat belittle the value of South Africa’s higher education. Professor Phakeng said instead of seeking to produce job seekers, the sector should prioritise inculcating entrepreneurial mindsets in students so that they learn problem-solving skills and become critical thinkers, thus enabling them to see opportunities even where there seem to be none.
Admitting that higher education should equip students with the scientific or technical knowledge in their fields, she added, even more importantly, that universities must work to boost students’ confidence, thus enabling them to explore solving problems in areas they are not necessarily trained in –“problem-solving not necessarily in areas that are going to benefit them alone,” she said.
“They should look in our society, see a need, solve it and maximise the opportunity for their good and for the good of the community,” Professor Phakeng added.
It was with that mindset that when she assumed vice-chancellorship, the first project she launched in collaboration with UCT’s Academic Student Council was an entrepreneurship programme with on-campus and in-residence activities run by students. She deliberately got involved to signal to students that entrepreneurship held significance in the institution. Professor Phakeng explained that in this programme, they each year plan and discuss available funding with a new team of student leaders. She lauded the various skills that the students develop through the responsibilities they assume, and engagements they get involved in, in this context.
The impact of entrepreneurship activities
Professor Phakeng declared her endorsement of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme, adding that through the annual EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity competition, they are able to measure the extent of support that students receive within hre institution.
“The reason why UCT students win every year is precisely that we actively support entrepreneurship at the university,” she said. She said by the time UCT students go on to compete nationally, they would have gone through a gruelling pitching exercise at their institution and received critiques that help sharpen their business strategies. That process entails bringing to campus, judges that they, themselves, would have identified and invited to sit through their pitch presentations.
“They must hustle because that is what entrepreneurship is about. You have got to learn to get important people to listen to you, to sell your idea, to even agree to come on to campus to be a judge and not get paid.”
UCT’s other key players
Although the entrepreneurship activities are handled by students, the overall management of the programme lies with UCT’s Career Service Office. The university does not require every role player to undertake a course or module in entrepreneurship. The focus is to foster an entrepreneurial mindset, she reiterated.
“Of course, this journey of entrepreneurship at UCT continues; it is not complete,” she said, announcing the steering committee they had just set up to help build a strong and coherent ecosystem.
Achieving entrepreneurship education goals requires disruptive institutions
“Any university that is not willing to be disruptive will find the entrepreneurial focus difficult,” she said. “Being a disruptor is not easy; especially in a university known for its research excellence as we are — it can be seen as unnecessary by others,” she added.
“This is why I have taken the responsibility to ensure that entrepreneurship thrives at UCT. Because being disruptive is not easy, I don’t want to hand it over to someone else, lest they end up crushed.”
She explained that universities invest a lot of energy, time and money in ensuring that they uphold their standards and ethos, hence the difficulty to become disruptive. That is why Professor Phakeng said it was vital to convince senior accounting and finance executives to support the entrepreneurship education vision to help keep the momentum alive.
Question: How do you keep your academic staff motivated to produce commercially viable products or solutions? Do you perhaps have ongoing workshops to equip, especially staff from non-business-related faculties, to ensure the marketisation of research findings?
Professor Phakeng: We have our Research, Contracts and Innovation Office that works directly with, and supports the teaching staff. Many of our innovations come through student projects and sometimes they are not even at the master’s or doctoral level. Every year, during Innovation Week, we showcase our work to inspire one another.
I must mention that the culture of entrepreneurship depends on many other things, not only workshops. So, we have an office that interacts with the community. It receives problems, even from the NGO sector or any other entity in our community. Students who do not know what problems they can solve can go into that office, look at what problems have been identified from our communities, and take up those projects and explore them in their studies. That assists in encouraging students to come up with solutions for real societal problems.
We also have, for example, a master’s programme in Biomedical Engineering, that produces a lot of student entrepreneurs. In place of conventional teaching the students are given a problem when they start the course, and they are tasked to develop a solution that is relevant to Africa and is affordable in the African context. They work with clinicians and only pass the course if their solutions work. Many who come in to pursue their master’s programme end up with businesses. By the time they leave, they are making gazillions in revenue. That is another useful strategy.
Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.