How to encourage entrepreneurship in higher education

The South African government used funding mechanisms to sharply increase the production of PhDs and research outputs in universities. Now clever ways need to be found to foster entrepreneurship and innovation in higher education, said Professor Ahmed Bawa, vice-chancellor of Durban University of Technology.

He also argued for university curricula to include a ‘general education’ component including entrepreneurship, for stronger partnerships between universities and local stakeholders to drive entrepreneurship activities, and for more opportunities within universities for students to engage in entrepreneurial activities.

Bawa was delivering a keynote address at the South African Technology Network’s Eighth Annual International Conference 2015 on “Entrepreneurship Education for Economic Renewal”, held at the science park of Vaal University of Technology in Gauteng province from 19-21 October.

South Africa’s biggest challenges are low economic growth, unemployment and inequality, said Bawa. But in villages across the country, people have become reliant on remittances – money sent by relatives working in cities – and this has destroyed local economies and economic activities, and therefore the ability of communities to lift themselves out of poverty.

One lesson is that entrepreneurship is not just about economic growth or jobs, or knowledge production and science in universities. “Those are very important, but entrepreneurship is about a much wider range of activities. It is primarily a social activity.

“It is about social justice. How can we re-establish at mass level a spirit of entrepreneurship – the ability of people and communities to produce high levels of self-sustainability. One of the challenges we face as universities is to understand how to interact in that space.”

Role of national government

Bawa described three policy-relevant areas that are key to advancing entrepreneurship and innovation.

The first is at national government level, where there has been growing awareness of the need for broad-based entrepreneurship, as evidenced by the creation of the Department of Small Business Development.

“Whether the department is doing what should be done is another matter. But at least there is recognition that the future of the economy does depend fundamentally on the small [business] sector.”

While the ‘big sector’ of the economy is important, there are enormous changes taking place that will lead to an erosion of employment. For instance, advances in ‘machine learning’ – the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed – means that much work that used to be done by people will be done by machines in the coming decades.

Thus, the emphasis has to be on small-scale industry, Bawa contended.

“The challenge is not about money. It is about culture and social development and new ways of engaging with people. It’s also about psychology, about saying to people, ‘your life is in your hands, you’d better take a grip’.”

“I’m not suggesting there should not be help, but getting communities that have not been involved in entrepreneurship, into entrepreneurship, is a major challenge.”

Government needed to focus on policies that would support this aim – and to rethink policies that were unhelpful, such as a recent policy on licensing small businesses, which looked like a good idea but was an impediment to business creation; and the roll-out of renewable energy projects that depend on massive investments and deny opportunities for communities.

Roles of councils

Bawa applauded bodies such as the Technology Innovation Agency and the Development Bank of Southern Africa, which were doing good work. The challenge now was to move beyond small pilots, he said.

“We have to take our best practices, as imperfect as they are, and get them to scale, so we can get increasing numbers of individuals and communities into an entrepreneurial framework.”

Also, it would be worth looking at how to lever capacity in science bodies such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Human Sciences Research Council.

For several years, Bawa worked with the Ford Foundation in New York. One of the things he learned was the importance of small grants.

“It’s one thing to make a grant of R100 million (US$7.2 million) to the KwaZulu-Natal [provincial] government to roll out cooperatives – I’m sure you’ve heard about that project, which was a total disaster.

"It would be completely different if we said to local communities, ‘here’s R100,000, please work with Durban University of Technology in designing an activity that you think can succeed’.

“These kinds of engagements have to be at the right scale in terms of money and in terms of who is involved. The moment you make it a big provincial or national project, then a range of complexities come into place.”

Universities, said Bawa, have been driven hard to grow the production of PhDs and research. “That is excellent. But what we’ve learned is that the production of high quality research and of PhDs isn’t going to lead naturally to growth in entrepreneurship and innovation.

“Those are vital inputs into a society that is entrepreneurial and innovative, but they are not sufficient inputs. We’ve left a chasm between where entrepreneurship should be taking place and what’s going on in universities. It is a chasm that we have to learn to fill.”

Specialised funding mechanisms led to an increase in PhDs and research outputs, said Bawa, “and we should be looking at innovation and entrepreneurship in the same way".

“Are there clever ways in which we can foster developments in those areas? Can we say to universities, in addition to your measuring teaching and research, we also want to measure the extent to which you are fostering entrepreneurship and innovation?”

Roles of universities

The third policy level is in higher education institutions. Bawa presented suggestions based on work being done at Durban University of Technology, the institution he leads, while stressing that each university has its own dimensions and context.

First is the area of curriculum. At Durban University of Technology, 30% of every curriculum already has or will soon have a ‘general education’ component, which exposes students to philosophy and ethics, among other areas.

“When I speak to employers of our graduates, I never hear complaints about the technical education. What I hear about is writing skills, communication skills, work ethic – those kinds of things.” The university is beginning to work with students in these areas.

Bawa wants literature included in ‘general education’. He recalled speaking to 7,000 first year students in 2011, and asking how many had read anything by Zakes Mda, an award-winning South African novelist, poet and playwright. “Not a single hand went up. How can you construct a nation from a group of people who do not know their own literature?”

There will also be a portion on entrepreneurship in the ‘general education’ curriculum. It will include areas such as the history of entrepreneurship, snapshots of great entrepreneurs, and the failure of entrepreneurship in South Africa. “This will not necessarily produce entrepreneurship, but it will introduce young people to ideas around entrepreneurship.”

Connecting to context

Second, said Bawa, there is a need to build a much greater connection between the university and its local context – industry, communities, NGOs, community-based groups, trade unions and others.

“The university cannot decide on entrepreneurship activities in isolation. You can’t sit behind a desk and say, ‘I think it is a good idea to have a candle-making factory in this place’. The only way you can do this is through engagement.”

Ideas for entrepreneurship should emanate from partnerships between the university and people outside it. “Which means that you have to engage in interdisciplinary work, as the world out there is not so kind as to divide itself into disciplines. You have to have a facility within the university that works at this interface between the context and the university.”

Durban University of Technology has created 12 research centres, and each of them is required to have ‘dynamic interfaces’ with different audiences. “That becomes an avenue for us to have these conversations.

“That kind of engagement opens up other avenues. It says can we have joint appointments between people in industry and people at the university? Can we have joint teaching? Can we have mentorship of students?”

Entrepreneurial experiences

Third, Bawa continued, was providing opportunities within the university for students to engage in entrepreneurial experiences. His university has created a ‘software factory’ that gets academics, students and an external company to work on external projects.

“The purpose is to get students involved in real life projects.” The work counts towards the students’ work, and the lesson is: “You have to work in an environment which is shaped by the business opportunity.”

Also, universities need to be more astute in dealing with work-integrated learning placements. “The young people are not just there to do menial tasks. They are also there to be with people who are working on innovations.”

The university, Bawa continued, should not only be engaged with entrepreneurship as part of formal education but “through all aspects of its operation”, through the ‘second curriculum’ or the curriculum outside the classroom.

“We should be telling all student organisations, ‘we expect you to be entrepreneurial, we expect you to be generating income and we will support you if we can’.”

“The one thing that I can vouch for is this great passion for entrepreneurship. Every student I meet has got an idea. How many of those ideas will become an innovation or entrepreneurial activity is another matter. The question is how we support and mentor this.”