The University serves a public good purpose where it contributes to society, builds experts and professionals, and – most especially – focuses on students. 

“That is what is special about universities,” said Professor Ahmed Bawa from the Johannesburg Business School of the University of Johannesburg. He was speaking to the topic The role of universities in driving social impact through the economy at the 5th annual Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme, that was recently concluded in Cape Town. 

Among other purposes, universities’ senior leadership was assembled to explore how innovation can be encouraged in undergraduate programmes across disciplines, and how to strengthen universities’ innovation commercialisation for social impact. EDHE is a programme of the Department of Higher Education and Training administered under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf).

Professor Bawa (left) kicked off his presentation with some questions.  

“Why is it that science in independent India, despite all the investments in it, is not the potentially creative force it threatened to be during the nationalist period?” (Atma Ram, Chair, India’s National Committee Science Technology, 1956)

Said Professor Bawa: “Ram was asking, why – after so much has been invested in science in the hope that it would bring about a better quality of life for Indians – has it not worked?”

He cited Readings, whose book, The University in Ruins (Bill Readings 1999), explores the impact of globalisation on universities; how it has forcefully torn the universities away from their contexts. “His focus is on the American research institutions – and has powerful lessons for all our institutions.”

Professor Bawa also spoke of Kenneth Rogoff (2018) a Harvard University economist, who “asks why universities have been so successful in disrupting other industries – like logistics, transport, electricity – yet have not been able to disrupt themselves.” He argued that universities should be focussing on shifting themselves, to improve economies.

Finally, he quoted Benson et al. (2007), who asked, in the book titled Dewey’s Dream: “……if American universities were so great, why were American cities so pathological?”

“Universities, he says, are located in contexts; they are in cities; they are great at producing knowledge, but the cities in which they are, are still pathological. There is a need for us to focus on universities to be much more sustained in their impact on society.”

Addressing deputy vice-chancellors (DVCs), deans, executive directors and managers (above) from 24 of South Africa’s 26 public universities, Bawa said: “I have one message: we need to understand how to make entrepreneurship education, development and entrepreneurialism sustainable – in a way that helps to embed this into university systems.” He added that this had to be done while universities stayed true to purpose.

Social institutions

He described universities as social institutions with multiple functions, calling them special in that they are knowledge intensive institutions, engaged in the business of producing and disseminating knowledge. “But they are particular in that they have students.” He said in their application of knowledge, universities produce outcomes, including new generations of intellectuals, professionals, innovators and entrepreneurs. “There is a social compact between society and universities; societies create universities because they see them as necessary for a multi-layered, complex political economy, and for democracies and inclusive economies.”


He also saw universities promoting entrepreneurism, a real word which he defined as “creating the intellectual, social, economic, emotional, policy infrastructure for entrepreneurialism to develop and flourish”. The policy infrastructure was not just institutional , but also national. 

“My message to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) is that there needs to be policy consonance, where government departments work in a more coherent and cohesive way. Currently, our policy space is deeply fragmented and does not contribute in any way to building an entrepreneurial culture.”


Consilience, Professor Bawa added, was a science idea which brought together bits of evidence to construct solutions. “These are powerful concepts in the world of the university whose role includes building more human-centred, more inclusive economies. Universities create the space for solving real problems at all levels.”

The professor was adamant: “Universities do not create jobs; jobs are created in the economy. It irritates me when people say universities are not doing enough to create jobs. What they do is create the opportunity for young people to enter the labour market.”

Entrepreneurship is not an easy way out

Entrepreneurship, he said, depended on a host of factors, including: 

  • Imagination/inventiveness 
  • Critical thinking (Where and how interventions will work)
  • Knowledge 
  • High level numeracy (ability to work with numbers at a high level of skill)
  • Understanding risks and risk-taking 
  • Having empathy (“This is critical. Empathy enables us to think about entrepreneurialism in diverse ways of addressing big societal challenges.)
  • Integration(ism) vs reductionism. 

The Role of Universities

He said the role of the university could be defined as:

  • Creating engaged citizens/Deepening democracy 
  • Meeting the needs of the economy 
  • Producing new knowledge/Developing human creativity 
  • Generating social mobility 
  • Nation building and building bridges between societies 
  • Addressing global challenges 
  • Building new cohorts of engaged intellectuals 

Said Professor Bawa: “We have to conceive of entrepreneurial thinking as one of these roles. It has to be built into the core functions and into the core curriculum. This is my singular message. Entrepreneurial thinking has to be seen in the same light that we build critical thinking or ethical reasoning, or problem solving.”

Addressing the Theory-Practice Nexus for all students

Professor Bawa: “Very foolishly, in my view, we have created a bifurcated system of education by splitting cognitive, theoretical learning from practical learning. We’ve done well in medical schools, where we’ve integrated learning and practice. 

“Creating opportunities for learning at the theory/practice nexus seems to be another way of integrating entrepreneurial thinking into the curriculum. What this does is allow us to move the focus of our education system away from transactional values of knowledge to use knowledge. Our students have to understand that you don’t get a degree to get a job. You get a degree so you can understand how to use knowledge to solve problems to further social good.”

Fragmented system

He also bemoaned the deeply fragmented research innovation system in South Africa. “While local researchers produce around 0.6% of the total output of the world’s research (SA has a 10% share of the top 10% of articles that are cited in the world), the articulation between the research system and the innovation system is broken. 

“There’s a chasm,’” he posited. “The idea of building entrepreneurial thinking into our curricula will help to address this issue.” He believes that students need to constantly think about what use they can put knowledge to, and the skills they are gaining. “How does that translate into a social product or commercial product? We have a faltering economy that is in crisis. We need to think about serious interventions into the economy through small and medium micro enterprises. Entrepreneurial thinking is at the centre of it”.

Bawa then referred to new companies in the biotech or renewable energy sector, saying: “What you see is entrepreneurial thinking – using knowledge to bring about socio economic good.” He said it was critically important for universities to understand that they should be building the entrepreneurial thinking capacity of students. That needed an entrepreneurial culture with the right policies in place.

In conclusion, Professor Bawa, who was the past seven years’ CEO of USAf said: “For the long-term sustainability of EDHE, we must see the development of business as a secondary outcome to building the capacity of all students to engage in entrepreneurial thinking.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

EDHE ELW 2023 Articles