During a Think Tank session that explored the topic Entrepreneurship Learning and Teaching for the Market at the recent EDHE Lekgotla 2022, experts agreed that for entrepreneurship education to be effective, it needs practicality and involvement of other disciplines within institutions.
Thus, the question was: How might commercialisation contribute to the curriculum transformation in entrepreneurship education – the lessons, challenges and how to mitigate these in an African context?
Setting the stage, session moderator, Dr Leon Van Rensburg (left), Business Management Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, offered two narrow and broader definitions of entrepreneurship education. The first equates entrepreneurship education as a specific training course for young people to start their businesses. The second one is about offering general skills that all students should learn, construed as helpful for preparing them for life all-around.
“There are different definitions, and educators have different views on entrepreneurial education, which can provide some challenges but also make it more interesting for us,” he said, adding that institutions are contending with the challenge of transforming curricular content into practice.
He further said entrepreneurial education represents one of the most progressive and innovative forms of teaching in higher education, where students are confronted with action-oriented pedagogies, including experimental learning activities. He was referring to writing business plans and simulations, developing products, services, and business models and running actual business ventures.
He then posed the question below, to the panellists:
What are the different ways in which entrepreneurship education can inspire innovation and commercialisation as a minor module within (a) a non-technical curriculum such as in business or (b) in a technical curriculum such as engineering?
Professor Janice Limson (above), Director: Biotechnology Innovation Centre at Rhodes University, referred to the changes that entrepreneurship education induced on students within the biotechnology stream, saying it nudged them to begin thinking about what or where their research might lead – be it a product or a process.
She said they have run various minor modules in biotechnology. The one they depict to work best is the entrepreneurship education directly into the postgraduate research from honours to doctoral levels of study.
“When our students start, we encourage them to start a process of thinking what their research can become. Is this a product? Is this a process? And then to consider how that would fit into the bigger picture. I find that has helped our students focus on their research, to see it turning into something. That is a powerful driver and motivator.”
Dr Abodiun Egbetokun (left), Assistant Director: Research at the National Centre for Technology Management in Nigeria, explained two ways that instilling innovation and commercialisation within a broader curriculum can help frame thinking in young people.
He said teaching young entrepreneurs the importance of following things from ideation to market, and the benefits of it all, helps to improve their world view. He cited a challenge, in Nigeria, where young people between 18 and 30 want to leave the country irrespective of their level of education, achievement or independence.
“Helping them to understand different alternatives they might have and how they could, on their own, develop a better life within the continent, creates a sense of attachment to the ecosystem… and this is true whether you are thinking about the business or an engineering curriculum. It is just the expected outcome that would differ.”
Dr Egbetokun said with entrepreneurship education, students’ needs for the subject would be determined by the curriculum. For instance, what is taught to business students would not necessarily be similar to the content given to engineering students on innovation and commercialisation.
Furthermore, he said that from his past research, he understands that the kind of content currently offered to instil entrepreneurship in young people may be necessary but insufficient.
“Practice is not sufficient. The content needs to be responsive, and until this happens, it will be a bit difficult to achieve the outcome of innovation and commercialisation.”
Mr Terry Dray (right), Director: Employability and Employer Engagement at Keele University in England, asserted that enterprise entrepreneurship and business start-ups are somewhat difficult territories to engage large numbers of students, therefore, removing barriers and making these courses accessible is one of the ways to receive mass participation.
He said some students viewed themselves as unfitting to take entrepreneurship-related courses, either saying it is not for them, they do not have the money, or they do not come from ‘right’ families, nor do they have the cultural, social and experiential capital.
To make this field attractive, Mr Dray’s institution linked global challenges as purported in the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) to the scope of entrepreneurship education. He said this approach enabled students to work in inter-disciplinary teams – with foundation and first years working with postgraduate students. Though challenging, this approach helped those involved feel like being part of something bigger.
Also helpful was the use of accessible language. They learned from some students that the use of academic language when teaching entrepreneurship education does not yield desired results. Facilitators have therefore incorporated easily understood and relatable phrases and vocabulary.
Keele University has a smart innovation hub, an entrepreneurial ecosystem where small business owners operate. This is a hatchery or development space for students.
Against this backdrop, Mr Dray reiterated that using real-world challenges works wonders in sparking entrepreneurship appetite in students.
Why do institutions undertake entrepreneurship education?
Another speaker, Dr Adam Shore (left), Director: Business School and Management at the Liverpool John Moores University in England, challenged institutions to ask why they are undertaking entrepreneurship education, and the outcomes or outputs they wish to advance.
Recollecting his tenure within the Welsh government, during which he assessed the impact of entrepreneurship education, Dr Shore said they found that the lifespan of business start-ups developed during university study was short. “What this tells us is that a lot of institutional spin-ups from student start-ups are perhaps a little immature in their business model, thinking and development,” he said.
Institutions must value safe failure
education system should consider embracing failing or failing safely. “This is where your simulations come in, and where small start-up opportunities or idea generation can occur.”
He also mentioned that in non-technical curricula such as business, there are students who wish to start businesses but lack the technical skills to develop them. Within technical programmes such as engineering, students do not often look to start businesses. Yet, in the entrepreneurship module they are asked to write a business plan, and they have no idea where it fits into their curriculum. Therefore, they do not understand the output of it all.
“I think we need to ask ourselves: what is the reason for us undertaking the activity of enterprise education? Is it for broadly growing a skills base in ideation, the resilience of learning to fail, of communication? Or is it about business start-ups? I think once you answer that question, then you can help design the programmes or interventions, appropriately.”
Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa