Six key elements of an entrepreneurial university

There are six key elements of an entrepreneurial university, according to Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, pro vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa – good leadership and governance, capacity incentives, entrepreneurship in teaching and learning, a culture of entrepreneurship, stakeholder partnerships, and internationalisation.

Innovation and entrepreneurship for development and for nation-building was what universities really had to do, said the pro vice-chancellor for innovation, commercialisation and entrepreneurship.

“But universities are so driven by subsidy formulas, are so driven by world rankings, are so driven by being number one or number two in the country in terms of research, that they have lost perspective of what it means to be a university and what it means to build a nation.”

Ramjugernath 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 from 19-21 October.

Dizzying pace of change

He used the smartphone to describe the dizzying pace of change. While it had taken up to 15,000 years for humans to go from moving on all fours to sitting in front of a computer, it had taken only 30 years to go from there to walking with a mobile device.

“There is more computational power in your hands today than NASA scientists had at their disposal when they put a man on the moon.”

Technology and innovation were enabling today’s rapid evolution, and universities were the drivers of innovation. “As soon as we realise that we must also realise that we have to evolve. As universities we can’t stand still in the way we have been doing.”

Hundreds of years ago, universities were about providing academic training for a privileged elite. Today they are about training people for the workforce.

“But we have lost the plot. How many of the graduates we produce are fit for purpose for the workforce? We’ve gone too far down the line where we measure the success of the university by the number of enrolments and graduates. We are not too worried about quality because then our subsidies will come down.”

Employers are “extremely worried” about the quality of graduates universities are producing, and whether they are what is needed nationally and globally, he said. Employers were having to invest “huge amounts of money” and time on training graduates.

Universities were also not responding sufficiently to the evolving knowledge economy. They had to change curricula and approaches in order to tackle national and global challenges, and needed to become more entrepreneurial.

Ramjugernath proposed six key elements of an entrepreneurial university.

Leadership and governance

While the words ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ were included in the vision and mission statements of many universities, institutions were only “paying lip service to those terms” and were not fully invested.

Every institution, said Ramjugernath, should have an executive portfolio for innovation and entrepreneurship that pulls together and coordinates entrepreneurship initiatives across all levels of the institution.

“When we talk about entrepreneurship it mustn’t be something that only sits up there in the executive management of the institution, it must also sit down at the school, department and unit level. It must be something that we breathe and live every single day as an organisation."

Also, if universities were to make a difference, they needed to drive the innovation and entrepreneurship agendas in partnership with government and the private sector.


Currently at most universities performance management is driven by research outputs – how many internationally-recognised journal papers have been produced.

“What we really should be doing is incentivising entrepreneurial behaviour and innovation.”

There should be appropriate funding and resources for entrepreneurship, said Ramjugernath, but managers should not – as is often the case – believe that innovation and entrepreneurship will solve university problems by generating third stream income.

“Investment in innovation and entrepreneurship is not for short term gain. It requires medium- to long-term investment, and if it is done right then institutions will start to reap benefits in the medium to long-term.” But in the short term, investment must be made.

Universities, he continued, work in disciplinary silos. “But if you want to be creative and innovative and entrepreneurial you have got to break down the silos” and become multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary.

Graduates should be able to come out of any field, such as nursing, with a mindset that enables them to enter another environment, such as business. “They should be able to operate in that environment, no matter what undergraduate training they have been given.”

Universities should recruit and engage with entrepreneurs. “All we do is give students a text book on entrepreneurship and tell them, ‘this is what you should be doing’. A lot of the time the people in front of the class giving talks on entrepreneurship haven’t experienced it themselves, so they are talking from text books as well.

“It is important that we integrate talented entrepreneurs into teaching programmes, because the best way to do it is by example. There is no better way than for a successful entrepreneur to come and say, ‘this is where I was 10 years ago, this is what I achieved, you can do it’.”

Staff also need to be entrepreneurial, said Ramjugernath, and should be supported by staff development. There was a misconception that entrepreneurship is simply about enterprise development, but this was not the case:

“It is all the qualities that you seek in an entrepreneur – consistent behaviour, the ability to recover from failures, persistence, doesn’t take no for an answer, has passion and so forth.” If those qualities were instilled in staff, universities would become far more efficient, he added.

“Obviously we have to incentivise and award that type of behaviour.”

Teaching and learning

It was essential for universities to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and skills. “We live in an age where technology is changing by the day but a lot of institutions still have whiteboards and chalkboards. We must be more innovative and entrepreneurial in teaching approaches.”

The ways students learn has changed, Ramjugernath explained. Today learning is more visual and multimedia. “Entrepreneurial behaviour in teaching and learning must be supported by the institution and we must validate entrepreneurial outcomes.”

Universities must collaborate and engage with external stakeholders across all research and teaching activities, with the results of research integrated into entrepreneurship training.

Currently, he added, universities are so focused on academics just being good teachers and good researchers that “we kind of penalise them if they become entrepreneurial”. Such people should be given space, as long as they also do their research.

“We must be proud of the fact that our staff and students are entrepreneurs and they are more successful than we are.”

A culture of entrepreneurship

Universities must raise awareness of the importance of entrepreneurship, actively encourage individuals to become entrepreneurs, provide opportunities to experience entrepreneurship and support moving from ideas to action and implementation.

There should be mentoring by academics and people in industry.

“The important thing is to have an enabling environment to finance entrepreneurial activities on campus,” Ramjugernath stressed, whether it was mainstream, external, venture or other funding. “It is important to have a coordinated effort at institutions to drive this.

"All universities should have a science, technology and innovation department and business incubation facilities to support efforts to take ideas all the way to the market.

“This creates opportunities for students to get first-hand exposure to business start-ups and entrepreneurs, to take the day-to-day knowledge they have gained in lectures, come into an innovation type environment, come up with an idea and then take it to market.”

Relationships and partnerships

“Stakeholders' relationships and strategic business partnerships are key to driving innovation and entrepreneurship,” according to Ramjugernath. Universities should be committed to collaboration and knowledge exchange with industry, society and the public sector, and to partnerships and relationships with a wide range of stakeholders.

There must be strong links and dynamic exchanges with business incubators, science parks and other initiatives related to innovation and entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurial activities involving staff and students with industry and business.

An ‘ivory tower’ mentality was undermining opportunities for fruitful relationships. Businesses and government must be encouraged to visit campuses, and universities must go and speak to them – “it must be seamless”, said Ramjugernath.

There should be mobility of staff, students, government officials and industry personnel, with all these activities linked to the knowledge eco-system.


Internationalisation is a key aspect of any university entrepreneurship strategy, and includes international mobility of students and staff, attracting international and entrepreneurial staff, demonstrating internationalisation in teaching and participating in international networks.

“Without internationalisation we cannot go down this road of really pushing the agenda of innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Ramjugernath. “We’ve got to use our partnerships and resources globally to drive this agenda.

“It is important to have mobility – not just the exchange of ideas and of knowledge but of students and staff, so that it is a culture exchange as well.”


Innovation and entrepreneurship are key to addressing socio-economic challenges, and universities should be directly tackling problems such as unemployment, poverty, low economic growth and inequality.

Currently, said Ramjugernath, universities are assuming that it is sufficient to train and graduate students who will find their way into the workforce and solve challenges – and indeed they are really good at teaching, research and some community outreach.

But higher education needs to be more directly involved.

“Universities need to evolve from teaching and learning, research and engagement to being drivers of innovation and entrepreneurship. And they need to work with all stakeholders in the innovation and entrepreneurship system – in the best interests of the nation and citizens.”