Producing entrepreneurial students – and universities

With graduate joblessness rising and state funding dwindling, universities of technology are confronted by dual challenges – delivering entrepreneurship education and work-integrated learning to students, and themselves becoming more entrepreneurial – says Professor Irene Moutlana, vice-chancellor of Vaal University of Technology and deputy chair of the South African Technology Network, or SATN.

Universities of technology are based on a transformative philosophy of education, Moutlana told University World News. They are all about change – responding to the changing demands of the world of work, and changing things into new commodities.

“We are businesses that sell a highly perishable commodity – knowledge. As the economy changes, or the context changes, so too must content of curricula and the learning experiences of students, in order for them to meaningfully contribute to socio-economic development.”

For example, Vaal University of Technology is opening an education faculty that will focus on producing teachers in areas such as science, electronic engineering and commerce; fields where there are teacher shortages and in which schooling is weakest.

“We have to apply knowledge immediately. We have to be innovative in order to occupy our space among higher education institutions. We cannot operate in a vacuum but must collaborate with stakeholders – business, government, society – to solve shared problems.”

In other words, Moutlana said, universities of technology are entrepreneurial.

“Entrepreneurship Education for Economic Renewal” is the theme of the SATN 8th Annual International Conference being held at Moutlana’s Vaal University of Technology from 19-21 October.

SATN is a coalition of seven universities of technology in South Africa and Namibia* aimed at advocating the views of the sector, supporting policy development and promoting research, academic excellence, student employability and cooperation between institutions and with commerce and industry.

The entrepreneurship idea

Unemployment has triggered a focus in higher education across the country on the notion of entrepreneurship. Universities have been blamed for not producing employable graduates, or graduates that can become employers.

But while it is easy to talk about enterprise, Moutlana said, it is important to be very clear about what is meant when something is described as entrepreneurial.

“This means that we have to form a value chain. An idea comes in, you convert that idea into something commercial and then you technologically transfer it for the upliftment of society. It is that meaningful transference that gives it a greater depth as an entrepreneurial product.”

Universities of technology are in an advantageous position, in an environment focused on entrepreneurship, Moutlana continued. Since the days when they were advanced technical colleges, the stress has been on technological capabilities, competencies and skills.

These institutions pride themselves on producing graduates who know how to do things. “How to create new things from old things,” said Moutlana, the entrepreneurial notion of looking at old things from new perspectives, of giving greater meaning to the things you have.

The sub-sector is talking about entrepreneurial platforms and integrated technological competencies – the ability of students to fabricate things, to apply knowledge. Most institutions have mastered vocational knowledge, and are niche-driven. Entrepreneurship education is embedded in the pedagogical approach, and it is taught as a subject.

In the past decade, with policy and funding emphasis on research, universities of technology have had to move very fast towards greater research output. The research has remained based on vocational and societal problems, applied in nature and often driven by government, the private sector, NGOs and community needs.

Having come from a ‘traditional’ university, Moutlana believes in blue sky research, and research for its own sake. She also believes in the value of applied research. “Universities of technology research is meaningful and it leads to upliftment.”

Producing job creators

As part of its efforts to tackle unemployment, the government is promoting work-integrated learning in tertiary education. Universities of technology already do this on a large scale.

Underpinning the problem is the great deal of money being spent on education institutions that are producing graduates who cannot be employed immediately. Not only do graduates need to be more employable, but universities also “need to produce job creators instead of job seekers. That goes hand in hand with the National Development Plan,” Moutlana said.

Vaal University of Technology has been looking at all programmes to see how curricula can be transformed: “To change the mindset from ‘what to learn’ to ‘how to do’. The economy and society need graduates who can move from the old to the new, and constantly innovate.

“The whole thing is about economic growth. How do you do that if the graduates from your institutions do not know how to create or bring about new ideas?”

Work-integrated learning is an inbuilt component of all programmes and qualifications at Vaal, Moutlana said. All students must be placed within the work environment before they can exit the system, in a well structured and well evaluated work readiness system.

This year 1,500 students have been placed in industries in the area, including international students, via a corporate education unit that forges collaborations with industry.

“There is another side to cooperative education, which we call ‘reverse cooperation’,” Moutlana continued. The university is situated in an area south of Johannesburg with massive, old industries in sectors such as oil, metals and energy.

“Industries are growing so fast and their needs are becoming so complex, that they can find themselves stuck with people who cannot deliver to their expectations, and that has a very negative impact on the industry.

“We went to those industries, and looked at all the people who needed to be upskilled or reskilled or even deskilled, and we put them into programmes to skill them.” These courses also try to imbue adult learners with a more entrepreneurial mindset.

An entrepreneurial university

Dwindling resources from government persuaded Moutlana’s Vaal University of Technology to change its business model. It created the Southern Gauteng Science and Technology Park – the venue for the upcoming SATN conference.

The park is located at one of the satellite campuses Vaal inherited during the higher education institutional mergers of a dozen years ago. All centres of excellence, along with anything related to the transfer and application of technology, were moved to the science park.

There is a Technology Transfer and Innovation unit, a Technology Station, an Enterprise Development Unit, Engineering Manufacturing Centre, Institute of Chemical and Bio-Technology, Iscor Innovation Centre and Idea to Product Laboratory.

Other major projects include the Institute for Sustainable Livelihoods, and the French South African Schneider Electric Education Centre. Business incubation is supported and, said Moutlana, the university is moving towards very concrete collaborations with investors.

“At the science and technology park, people can see the tangibles that come from research, collaboration with industry and also collaboration with communities.” And the university, it is hoped, will see a new and much-needed income stream.

* Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Central University of Technology, Durban University of Technology, Mangosuthu University of Technology, Polytechnic of Namibia, Tshwane University of Technology and Vaal University of Technology.