Developing entrepreneurs and encouraging entrepreneurial thinking has to be the cornerstone of reforming a society characterised by socio-economic imbalances. This was stressed by two senior academics, speaking at the official opening of the annual Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2022 in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape. EDHE Lekgotla 2022 is hosted by Nelson Mandela University from 19-21 July.

Welcoming national and international delegates to his university, Professor Andre Keet, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Engagement and Transformation at Nelson Mandela University, said undoubtedly, this was one of the most important gatherings in the sector “at this historical moment, at this time and in this context”.

He added: “We’ve convened under the theme entrepreneurship #movetomarket which articulates the aspirations and service of society – a place and space for co-creating transformative solutions to depressing challenges confronting the marginalised and vulnerable.” Entrepreneurship, he said, should be seen as a possible solution to the challenge of employability, inequality and poverty.

Echoing these themes, Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf), said: “CoViD-19 taught us to focus on the fundamentals. A week into the pandemic, we realised that there was a need to focus on a social justice rubric for the way in which we managed the pandemic.” He listed the need for building equity and inclusiveness as one of the crucial lessons learnt from the pandemic.

While some universities ‘sped along with new forms of delivery,’ the big question, he said, “was how to ensure that no student was left behind in the sector and that every student had a fair chance of completing the academic year.”

The need for new forms of thinking

Making a case for innovation, Professor Keet (left) believes that orthodox thinking and models of development – “the same thinking that has produced and reproduced the poverty and other socio-economic challenges facing millions of South Africans” – need to be reviewed.

He said that in getting to a potentially game-changing space, universities had chosen heterodox entrepreneurship thinking – finding alternative models and practices for developing entrepreneurship. This was necessary as the world was increasingly characterised by uncertainty, unprecedented complexity and imperfections – including imperfect competition in the context of business enterprises.

“If we keep on following the dominant paradigms, the receivable categories — those age-old assumptions on which we operate, the current social problems will persist.”

Alternative forms of thinking and doing necessitated emphasis on social entrepreneurship that, unlike mainstream entrepreneurship, was about the creation of social value and impact.

This, Professor Keet said, placed the outcomes of interventions, creativity and new developments at the service of society.

Advancing Social Development

“Its primary role is to advance social development. It could also be described as transformative entrepreneurship,” he said. He added: “I suggest that entrepreneurship development in higher education needs to stay true to the promise of this ideal – not to simply address the failures of the market, but also respond to the questions of sustainable public wealth creation. Academics, researchers and practitioners in this space need to address this question.”

An Important, vexing matter

The EDHE Lekgotla, he said, was crucial because entrepreneurship in higher education is one of the most important and vexing matters at this time. “This meeting represents an important gathering, a promise to our nation that meaningful alternatives are being sought to drive an inclusive narrative of progress. Given our challenges, I am convinced that that the 2022 Lekgotla will be positively disruptive in dealing with the issues that hinder the growth of collaborative networks for entrepreneurship development across our sector.”

Lessons learnt from on-the-ground experience

In building student entrepreneurship at Nelson Mandela, the focus was on supporting students in a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder way, while developing associated frameworks.

Professor Keet said a critical lesson learnt in the last five years was that driving entrepreneurship requires a partnership between the university and its broader social community. “These partnerships need to be underpinned by principles of equality – must be non-hierarchical, collectively driven and most importantly, have collective learning collaborations.”

This, he said, was part of the transformative journey to “remake our university as a catalyst for sustainable and impactful societal change, a movement that is growing nationally, regionally and globally in higher education.”

Lessons learnt from the pandemic

Professor Bawa (above) began his presentation by saying the foreseeable future would be devoted to studying the impact of CoViD-19.  He said: “The theme #movetomarket really rings close to my heart – it is something we’ve been grappling with in South Africa.”  Referring to Professor Keet’s earlier comment, he asked: What does #movetomarketmean? What kind of entrepreneurship are we talking about? We have to keep a broad perspective as there are many different markets.”

Lesson 1: New ways of doing things

Professor Bawa said the first thing learned was that there are many ways of doing things.  ‘Stodgy’ universities found they could change and find new and innovative ways of doing things; new ways for assessment or of delivering academic programmes.

Administration, he said, changed overnight.  “We were all deeply concerned about the performance of the sector – we are still analysing that. We don’t really know for sure, but it doesn’t seem that we had a collapse of quality.” He said it was important to keep the opportunity for diversity of approaches front-of-mind, going forward.

“We saw this defragmentation of our society; most South Africans had negative pandemic experiences because of policies that were in place. When we think about the future of EDHE and entrepreneurship development, let’s keep front and centre, the idea of retaining a social justice approach to understanding not just what happened in the pandemic, but what we do in the future.”

Lesson 2: Democratic participation

Optimising democratic participation, he said, is critical. “When the government, universities and business made decisions without consultation, that inevitably led to conflict. The idea has to be – as difficult as it is – that we retain and strengthen democratic participation in whatever we do.”

[Professor Bawa was part of a pandemic Ministerial Task Team that met once a week. The sector-wide committee included students, unions, university administrators and members from various government departments. He said it was difficult as it was a large group with many different views. “But it was necessary as it was the platform where we could listen to the concerns that were being put on the table. Democratic participation is fundamental and has to be borne in mind as we head into the future.”]

Lesson 3: Building equity and inclusiveness

When, in March 2020, Wits University and UCT each reported one case of Covid-19, academics thought things would be back to normal in a short time. “We had no idea it would take so long. Realising we had to adopt an inclusive equity-building approach to higher education, the most important discovery we made was the need to develop partnerships; to collaborate. To solve the big challenges, we were facing we had to work together.”

Professor Bawa said that for the first time, universities collaborated seriously with each other; vice chancellors met once a week in the first 6 months of 2020 where the idea was to develop a sectoral approach. He urged the EDHE team to learn from this and to work collaboratively and jointly. “This is about building a national approach to entrepreneurship development where we are playing a role that will shape the future of the economy.”

The partnership approach was critical, he said. It was also important that the partnerships had to be of benefit to all parties.

Knowledge

Universities, Professor Bawa said, are complex, social, knowledge-intensive institutions.  “We produce and disseminate knowledge; we innovate and have to integrate all of this in the way we shape our programmes and run our universities. We are created by a society that believes universities are important for the functioning of democracy and economies.”

But, he said it was important to note that universities are not just delivery agencies; they have a very specific role in society in that they are knowledge intensive.

Speaking to this year’s theme, Professor Bawa said the focus had to be on the students ‘because that is our core function’.

The role of universities, he said, is to ensure graduates are absorbed by the labour market, adding that research and innovation feeds into the economy. Professor Bawa referenced two kinds of transformation of the economy that EDHE can play a major role in:

  • Broadening the base of the economy to make it more inclusive.
  • Making a shift towards a knowledge economy (“This is a dream for South Africa that we have had for the last 26 years; it is what all the policy documents speak to. We have not yet been that successful, Professor Bawa said.)

The Way Forward

  • Entrepreneurial thinking:
    Professor Bawa: “One way of thinking about EDHE is that it is there to create entrepreneurs, people who are creating business, shaping the world of commerce. There’s another more inclusive way of thinking about this: just as we ensure our graduates develop critical skills, we should also ensure they develop entrepreneurial skills and entrepreneurial thinking.“Our students need to engage, not just with the transactional value of their qualifications (I have this knowledge, now I want a job) but with the use value of the qualification they get (How can I put that knowledge to use? How can I generate additional outcomes from the knowledge?)“The idea of developing entrepreneurial thinking among graduates is key. It won’t just happen through courses or lectures – young people have to engage in entrepreneurial thinking in a way that provides them with skills they can take into the world of work. Not everyone will be an entrepreneur; but that doesn’t mean they can’t be taught entrepreneurial thinking.”
  • Entrepreneurial thinking and innovation:
    Professor Bawa: “We have an enormous research innovation chasm in South Africa. Even when research was speeding upwards, there was no indication that there was an increase in innovation. The challenge is that there is a heavy investment in the kinds of research that we think will produce innovation for the economy. What we’ve seen in last five to six years is a steady decline in private sector funding of Research and Development. That has enormous consequences for the innovation capacity of universities. At post-graduate level, we should ensure that as students are working towards their projects, they are also engaging in entrepreneurial thinking: what is the use value of the research they are doing? That has the potential to change research projects; to invigorate new approaches to the research being undertaken.”
  • ENTREPRENEURISM (a self-coined word)
    Professor Bawa: “This is not a word in the English language! I use it to mean that if we want this to work, we have to find ways of designing an ecosystem (not leaving it to chance) that provides the basis for entrepreneurship to flourish. It has to do with physical infrastructure and resources, with intellectual development, social and cultural enterprises that will foster entrepreneurial thinking and entrepreneurship. We have to build skills and, most importantly, create policy consonance. We have to ensure that all the policies in the national system, and at universities, pull in the same direction. Universities have to play a role in shaping this.”The USAf CEO concluded by saying: “Entrepreneurship is not easy; it’s not about what’s going on in the first curriculum – in the classroom or in the laboratories. It’s predominantly about what is going on in the second curriculum – about everything that is happening outside the classroom. It is about building the ability of young people to socially interact in a way that fosters entrepreneurship. I’m very pleased that vice-chancellors and directors of student affairs are coming on board.“We need to think about Universities as anchor institutions; where they have an opportunity to be context bound in that they are in a physical location and have a role to play in building entrepreneurship in that local context.”

The EDHE Lekgotla 2022 has attracted 107 speakers and close to 500 delegates, half of whom are attending in person. The event is a flagship project of the EDHE programme being implemented under the auspices of Universities South Africa and sponsored by the Department Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa

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