Entrepreneurial universities need the unwavering commitment and support from university leadership if entrepreneurship is to grow and thrive.

This view, expressed by Dr Ndanduleni Nthambeleni, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Venda (UNIVEN), was endorsed by all five senior academic thought leaders participating in one of the think tank sessions at last week’s 6th annual Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2022.

The session explored strategic solutions to challenges faced in the university entrepreneurship environment. Speakers addressed the question: How might rurally based institutions optimally position themselves as entrepreneurial universities?

Moderator, Professor Eunice Seekoe (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching, Learning and Community Engagement at the Sefako Makgatho University of Health Sciences, is also the Deputy Chairperson: national EDHE Community of Practice for Entrepreneurial Universities:

Pointing out the stark differences between developing entrepreneurship ecosystems in urban and rural universities, she invited the panel to share their institutions’ experiences in this regard.

Dr Wilhelmina Quaye (right), Chief Research Director at Ghana’s Science and Technology Policy Research Institute in the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who spoke remotely from her home country, kicked off. She reiterated that university leadership and government support is key.

Having surveyed 14 universities in Ghana, she said the word “entrepreneurship” should appear clearly in institutional mission statements, to keep leadership focused on developing its implementation strategies.

“In Ghana, we have rural investors. Support for entrepreneurship from the private sector and government is essential.” Entrepreneurial programmes, Dr Quaye said, should respond to challenges in the communities where institutions are situated. “Context is critical. You can’t have a rural community that is agricultural economy based and do something else.”

She said the triple helix relationship – government, university and industry – was crucial in building an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Dr Ndanduleni Bernard Nthambeleni (left), Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Venda (UNIVEN), who also participated virtually, added a second perspective. “We need to turn the rural context into a competitive advantage.” For that, he said there needed to be a fusion of like-minded people working together: municipalities, traditional councils and business organisations, strengthening what works well. Achievements had to be emphasised and incorporated into strategic plans, he said.

“Mentioning UNIVEN as an entrepreneurial university was one of our chief strategic thrusts, so as to create an impetus, across all levels, to move in that direction. We went further by embedding entrepreneurship in the system, creating communities of practice (CoPs) to provide clarity of focus and the energy we wanted to see happening across the institution. We established strategic alliances to provide broad exposure to our students and staff. Our academic staff, students and external ecosystem partners have bought into this view.”

On collaborations, he said UNIVEN was involved in the Step UNESCO programme that has seen German universities teaming up with institutions in the global South to provide business training to academic staff, and students. The programme is funded by the German Commission for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational and Scientific Commission.)

Dr Naude Malan (left), Senior Lecturer in Business Management at the University of Johannesburg, asked: “Who are these entrepreneurs? In South Africa, especially in rural areas, we have two kinds: those in the informal sector, which they’ve been pushed into, and corporate or large enterprise entrepreneurs.”

Equilibrium economics, where all enterprises converge in the same model, argued against entrepreneurship, he said, adding that it was necessary to disrupt the system. “As a teacher, I say we need an action research approach. What I do with action research project, iZindaba Zokudla[1], is build bundles of innovators around entrepreneurs.”

Dr Malan added: “We have to take critical social science seriously in this; you have to disrupt the system – the enterprises that succeed are going to have to exhibit a different model.”

To do this, he stressed, universities needed to ‘step out of the ivory tower’, organise events to gather entrepreneurs, connect them with the expertise available in the university and also to the right people. “Let the event talk about the comparative advantage of the area – something around technology, geography, the people and locally available resources.  This contributes to sustainability because you will be creating a locally appropriate bundle of innovators around your comparative advantage.

“Once you’ve established that, you need to deliver a full spectrum of university services – from knowledge generation, design, patenting, technology innovation, creating social relationships, creating enterprise forms…All those services can now be delivered to bundles of entrepreneurs who are organised with students.

“Enterprises are peculiar social, not economic, anthropological creatures that reinterpret local needs in terms of what is available in the market.” The entrepreneurial university will therefore reach out to bring the entrepreneurs in, deliver the right services to them and then reflect on that.

Professor Sibusiso Moyo (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), said context was important.

She said the strength of DUT’s Midlands campus lay in agriculture, that fits well with neighbouring communities. “We’ve used that strength to build our agri business sector where social entrepreneurs have emerged, working with the communities, learning how to grow their own vegetables.

DUT’s City campus, on the other hand, boasts fashion businesses and information technology. “We’ve had to create an enabling enviroment with processes that have short turnaround times – especially around procurement, policies and procedures. What values we embed in those entrepreneurs is important, including our systems and processes within the university and how we handle the sustainable development goals that can be localised.

“It’s also important to address the key issues around inequality and unemployment in the region.”

On impact, Professor Moyo said: “While we do a lot of great things, the data around impact and people’s expectations are not very clear. From 2018 to date, we’ve supported around 56 student enterprises – some making a profit in excess of R100 000. But you want to understand if they will last beyond two years, the average lifespan for SMMEs in our region.

She concluded that universities need “a well-supported and resourced strategy by top management, as well as an understanding of the advantages and priorities of the region where you are located.”

Professor Eugene Cloete (right), Vice Rector: Research and Innovation at Stellenbosch University, said that 10 years ago he was appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research, with Innovation and Post Graduate studies added to his title.

“The innovation part is important because the university is an enterprise and I was tasked with working towards a research-intensive university, but also to work on innovation and entrepreneurship.”

He identified five areas that helped establish an entrepreneurial culture at the university, but also an entrepreneurial university.

  1. Hiring the right people. “Your knowledge base is extremely important. At the time we had 16 sponsored research chairs, we now have 60 that are sponsored by industry. We’ve grown the number of our post-doctoral fellows from 150 to 370.”
  2. Focus on students’ success: Masters, PhD and post doctoral students.
  3. Establish challenge-led multi-disciplinary entities. “We established a school for data science and computational thinking and a school for climate studies; more recently a water institute and many others. This helps our academics to think across their own discipline which is key for being entrepreneurial.”
  4. Focus on partnerships. “We realise research funding is on the decline due to the economic situation. We diversified our income stream – 75% of our research is now internationally funded.
  5. Focus on innovation. “We established Stellenbosch Business Enterprises – an independent company wholly owned by the university – that looks after commercialisation of our intellectual property (IP). We have a Technology Transfer Office that looks after IP. Our LaunchLab is our business incubator where startup companies spend two years under the mentorship of experienced business people. In the past three years, we’ve spunout 29 successful companies.”

He said: “Entrepreneurship is about doing everything you do better or differently. It’s not only about a product you take to market, or commercialising your research per se.” Social entrepreneurship, he said, gets huge attention at SU because “it’s in the social entrepreneurship space that you can also commercialise the universities’ assets.”

His example was the annual Die Woord Fees competition– that attracts major local artists to hold 100 concerts on campus. “At least 100 000 people visit Stellenbosch that week. It creates permanent jobs for about 5 000 people and is now one of the one of the most popular programmes on local television – with sponsorship.”

Discussion

Professor Seekoe asked: What are the challenges to becoming an entrepreneurial university, and a rural one, at that?

Dr Nthambeleni: “We need to demystify entrepreneurship because if we fail to do that, the message you want to send out will not find resonance.” At UNIVEN, they conducted workshops for staff and students. “This will change the curriculum. So, it is important to appoint ambassadors who liaise with students and staff, to energise the message across the institution.”

Dr Quaye stressed resource mobilisation, building organisational capacity and incentives. “You need to find sustainable financial strategies to sustain the activities of the incubators and other teaching and learning in the area of entrepreneurship. Gender had to be factored in and women given more support.” She advocates a reward system for staff engaged in entrepreneurial activities. “Specific, adequate, budgets are needed for entrepreneurial activities to grow and for universities to create opportunity at all levels.”

Professor Moyo says the right environment and hiring the right people is key for rural universities, something DUT struggled with. “Hiring PhDs does not mean you’ll get the best mentors for the students. You need academics who are entrepreneurs. The need to develop students by mentoring them. Helping post-graduate students think entrepreneurially on how to translate their research into something that can be commercialised is important.

“We need to manage expectations and communicate clearly on what services would be provided communities. Our centres should not become places where people are looking for tenders!

“Getting community and industry on board is also important. The challenge for us is how to ensure that the knowledge we produce has relevance and that the businesses we support are designed to move to market.”

Professor Cloete added: “There’s a fundamental philosophy we need to be aware of, that we’ll have to change in some way. Universities and academic staff are primarily reductive in their thinking – they set a hypothesis, do a lot of research in the laboratory or library to prove that hypothesis right or wrong then write and submit. If it’s not good enough it’s rejected so they’re spared embarrassment. If it’s published they get accolades. But it’s a safe space. If you want to be entrepreneurial, you have to use inductive thinking – which means uncertainty but also a lot of creativity.”

Combining both processes, he said, is important because many ideas making a big difference in the world have come from basic research. “We also use that reductive thinking in the way we assess our student; we let them write a three-hour exam for which they have to get 50%. If they pass, we have no idea whether they’ve learnt anything – a three-hour exam only tests the lower cognitive levels, like memory. If we look at Bloom’s taxonomy, it’s about memory, synthesis and eventually about creativity – that we seldom come to.”

Professor Cloete believes a creative mindset is key to being entrepreneurial. “Although we think we think, we don’t think. Just imagine those people who are running their computers on Windows, you have to go to Start to shut down. The QWERTY keyboard on a computer was designed by Christopher Shells in 1876 to slow down typing because the old typewriters jammed.”

Despite the advent of electricity and computers, the same keyboard is still used.

“There is a lot of reserve thinking capacity in the world, which is good as we’ll need it as we go forward. Fundamentally, we have to change the way we help our young people to think creatively.”

He said in academics, reductive thinking needed to be combined with inductive thinking. “That has to become the culture of the university, of every student and every staff member. Entrepreneurship flows automatically from that.”

In conclusion Dr Malan asked: How do you embed yourself in the community? What opportunities, processes and channels do you put in place for students to engage with entrepreneurs? 

He urged against universities pushing entrepreneurship to serve their interests and commercialise their own IP. He said this was not the knowledge that struggling entrepreneurs needed. “The university needs to walk a fine line looking after the interests of society rather than its own.”

The EDHE Lekgotla 2022 was hosted by Nelson Mandela University from 19-21 July in Gqeberha, in the Eastern Cape. It ran under the theme Entrepreneurship #movetomarket.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

[1] iZindaba Zokudla is an urban agricultural project in Soweto that Dr Naude Malan is involved in.

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