The underlying purpose of universities, since their inception, has been to effect change and positive transformation within the communities they serve, and to have an impact in the development of society.

How this can effectively be achieved was at the centre of all speakers’ core message at the 5th Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW), an annual project of Universities South Africa (USAf)’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme.

Honouring the 2023 EDHE theme: Social Innovation for Societal Impact, the two-day workshop held in Cape Town attracted deputy vice-chancellors (DVCs), deans, their deputies, executive directors and managers (above) from 24 of South Africa’s 26 public universities. The academy’s senior leadership explored how innovation can be encouraged in undergraduate programmes across disciplines, along with ways to strengthen universities’ innovation commercialisation for social impact.

Welcoming the delegates, Mr Mahlubi Chief Mabizela (right), USAf Director: Operations and Support, pointed out that impacting social change is context based and depends largely on the needs of the society where the university is located. This differs from one society to another, and more so between developed and developing nations.

“We are in a developing society, but universities, because of the nature of the services they render – teaching, learning and research – exert influence beyond those boundaries, whether artificially or otherwise,” he said. He called on the institutional leadership to act. “As practitioners in higher education, we must understand the needs of our immediate society, so we can shape our university to become fit for the purpose of contributing to its development.” He said researching societal needs accurately – without only using grounded knowledge of society – requires a redesign of “instruments”.

Mr Mabizela explained that these instruments included:

  • Teaching and learning infrastructure: “We design curricula for training programmes or schools or training clinics or interventions”.
  • Knowledge infrastructure: “We establish information technology, libraries and communication channels”.
  • Organisational infrastructure: “We establish offices and portfolios so we have an intimate knowledge and intellectual understanding of the needs of our society.”

The university had to continuously adapt to the dynamic changing demands of the society to keep up and remain relevant. Mr Mabizela said: “The leadership of our sector must be flexible and dynamic enough to lead that change.”

He quoted Professor Burton R Clarke, whose seminal study, Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organisational Pathways of Transformation (1998) of five European universities identified the definitive characteristics of entrepreneurial universities. These emerged as:

  1. A strengthened steering core which features concepts such as cutting through bureaucracy, flexible, dynamic and decisive while remaining collegial and representational
  2. Expanded developmental periphery: reaching across all university boundaries of academia to touch organisations and structures traditionally not considered to be part of a university
  3. Diversified funding base
  4. Stimulated academic heartland whose buy-in is needed for the entrepreneurial innovations taking place if they are to succeed
  5. Integrated entrepreneurial culture: the successful entrepreneurial university creates an entrepreneurial culture that embraces change.

“I believe the mistake we make is to think of entrepreneurship as the technological innovations and advancements carried out in the laboratories and in specific academic disciplines,” Mabizela went on to say. “Entrepreneurship in an entrepreneurial university must be a lifestyle, etched in our minds within humanities and social sciences, students and academics.

“USAf strives to build engaged universities through engaged scholarship for the production of engaged graduates in South Africa.” He further defined engagement as meaning an intimate and intellectual understanding of society which must influence the shaping of universities to meet the dynamic changing needs of our society.

Taking that further, Dr Norah Clarke (left), Director: EDHE, said USAf’s flagship EDHE programme served as a catalyst for driving positive change within universities and beyond.

EDHE as a vehicle for transformation and impact

She told the delegates: “As leaders, you seek avenues to enhance students’ educational experience while looking for opportunities to empower your staff and to foster an environment that nurtures innovation and entrepreneurship. EDHE, as an initiative, holds great potential for economic transformation and social impact – which is all about the lives of people.”

Dr Clarke warned against being swamped by bureaucracy and losing perspective, urging those present to “keep the big picture in mind and think of the lives of people who ultimately benefit – indirectly – from your work”.

A theme reiterated at this ELW was that entrepreneurship should cross academic disciplines and be used as a tool for social change, economic transformation and impact.
“Think of entrepreneurship as a tool. You might not be particularly excited about business, but it is an instrument for change.”

The fact that representatives from 24 of 26 universities attended the ELW spoke volumes about the entrepreneurial awakening, movement and growth in South African institutions.
“EDHE aims to cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship that permeates every facet of our academic institutions. This transformational programme is aimed at students and academics, support professionals, but also at universities as entrepreneurial eco systems,” Dr Clarke said, as she outlined the three pillars on which an entrepreneurial culture is built:

  1. The development and support of student entrepreneurship across disciplines – specifically focused on female entrepreneurs, who are the majority of students and graduates yet are still significantly under-represented. EDHE structures that support this objective of student entrepreneurship include Communities of Practice (CoP) and a number of annual EDHE events, including workshop and competitions. A Student Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme, SWEEP, is rolling out student chapters at universities and has generated much interest among women students.
  2. The EDHE programme as a catalyst for change and empowerment is aimed at Teaching and Learning; Research and Innovation. There are two national CoPs – one aligned with entrepreneurship learning and teaching across all disciplines and another focuses on entrepreneurship research.
  3. A CoP that supports the development of entrepreneurial universities – a volunteer driven platform where professionals buy into the social impact component of the work and help support entrepreneurship development.
  4. Economic Activation Officers – piloted in 10 institutions. A mechanism for facilitating and sharing information and knowledge related to entrepreneurship.

How effectively are we contributing to South Africa’s economic development?

Professor Eugene Cloete (left), CEO at the Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC) and chairperson of the EDHE CoP for Entrepreneurial Universities, spoke about the unique role universities must play in social entrepreneurship. He mentioned attending a Master Class given by scenario planner and strategist, Clem Sunter, in which he identified unemployment (among youth in particular) as both a negative as well as an opportunity in South Africa.

Said Professor Cloete: “Universities should ask themselves what their role is in the economic development of the country. One of the key performance areas of universities should be the number of jobs they created that year. That will change the mindset. We deliver graduates, then it’s up to them to find a job. I like to think that a successful student at your university should be one who graduates with a job. Entrepreneurship plays an important role there. We don’t think of universities as economic drivers and that is what they have to be.

“We, in SA, are going through a difficult birth process to deliver the real new South Africa.
We see a lot of unintended consequences that come from infrastructure being neglected.
Loadshedding, for example, is the best thing that has happened to South Africa in a long time because it has accelerated the green economy.”

Inconvenient situations create entrepreneurial opportunities

Referring to solar powered energy, he said: “It’s created thousands of new jobs and a whole new industry in South Africa.” But, he added, social entrepreneurship is about creating new business models; not just about making money but about how what you do impacts society.
The green economy has seen unique business models emerge – for example, one where you can rent your solar system without having to spend large sums to install your own.

“Clem Sunter says the biggest opportunity we have is around entrepreneurship,” Professor Cloete continued. “America is the number one economy in the world is because of entrepreneurship. Europe has a huge bureaucracy; China’s centralised government governs its economy. America has decentralised that into the hands of individuals and created opportunities for entrepreneurship to flourish.”

He said of South Africa: “The cream of the crop of our universities is here in this room. Our challenge? How are we, as universities, going to create job opportunities?”

Professor Cloete said he has been appointed to serve on the Chamber of Commerce in Cape Town where his portfolio is entrepreneurship and innovation. “They have identified 18 clusters of business challenges they face and, using their few thousand members, are asking how to get industry partners to talk to universities. They realise the importance of the intellectual capital that sits at universities but there is a disconnect between what we do at universities and what the need is, out there, in terms of what the private sector wants.

“My job is to get them to talk to one another.” He told delegates that EDHE provided an ideal platform for them to capitalise on their expertise within the university. “You need to support entrepreneurship from the top. Your challenge, as senior leaders in your universities, is how to create an entrepreneurial culture within your organisation with the emphasis not only on the technological side but with societal impact.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

ELW 2023 Articles