Building innovation, entrepreneurship in universities

Are entrepreneurs born or made? That debate still rages, but for Central University of Technology Vice-chancellor Professor Thandwa Mthembu the answer is clear: Entrepreneurs can indeed be made and it’s time to invest more seriously in that process.

“Everything is teachable, given the right environment. If you think something is not teachable, then you probably don’t belong in an educational institution,” he told University World News in an interview last week, in which he outlined his institution’s strategic focus on innovation and entrepreneurship education in line with its vision to become an agent for socio-economic development, particularly at the level of cities and regions.

“We must be wary of assuming that a certain level of understanding of some concepts is obvious; it may well be to some people, but there should also be ways of introducing it to others, who do not see it as obvious, in a methodical way.

“Entrepreneurship could also be translated into a method and process; and hence we could then talk of entrepreneurship education,” he said.

While he acknowledges a place for theory in entrepreneurship education, Mthembu says there needs to be far more emphasis on practical experience in a real working environment.

“We pride ourselves at universities of technology on the fact that our students go out to work in companies in their second year. But is this not too little too late?

“We need to shift the emphasis from theory to practice from day one, asking ourselves: ‘How can we add value to society rather than to our brains only?’ That’s the space I seek for our institution – a major thrust on, and foregrounding of, the practical side.”

Drawing on international experience

While he admits that not all entrepreneurs produce successful businesses, Mthembu believes a good education in entrepreneurship can remove some of the uncertainty surrounding the process of starting and running a business.

His confidence in the ‘teachability’ of entrepreneurship and his commitment to embedding it into the curricula and internal systems of universities stems in part from his wide exposure to successful entrepreneurship education programmes around the world.

In 2014, Mthembu used his sabbatical leave to embark on a tour which took him to 10 institutions in seven countries including Spain, Finland, Mexico and Germany – all with similar characteristics to Central University of Technology in terms of shape, size and regional location.

The trip was put together with help from international higher education, innovation and regional development expert Jaana Puukka who had previously led the OECD international Reviews of Higher Education in Regional and City Development.

Among the institutions that made an impression on Mthembu was JAMK University of Applied Sciences based in Finland where entrepreneurship education is embedded into the curriculum from the first year of study.

According to Mthembu, the JAMK emphasis on practical skills, real-life challenges and group work means students are ready to commence viable businesses by the time they complete their bachelor degree.

On his return from the tour, Mthembu penned a number of recommendations for his university, which arose from the experiences to which he had been exposed.

“We agreed on an entrepreneurship and innovation strategy for our university which aims to infuse entrepreneurial pedagogy into all aspects of teaching and learning. Central University of Technology continues to benefit from ongoing collaboration with JAMK,” said Mthembu.

The jobless youth issue

At the heart of the vice-chancellor’s enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and innovation at universities are two contextual issues: a strong suspicion that traditional South African teaching methods and a lecture-centred approach might be stifling rather than encouraging innovation; and a serious commitment to addressing the issue of youth unemployment.

On the latter issue, Mthembu said youth unemployment in South Africa, estimated at about 54% during the second quarter of 2016, is much higher than in many economies of South Africa’s size.

He pointed to a 2013 study by the Johannesburg-based Centre for Development and Enterprise on graduate unemployment, which found that diplomates were three times more likely to be unemployed than degree holders.

Mthembu said universities of technology needed to find ways of improving the employment chances of their diplomates and those less qualified. In turn, this suggests an even more acute need for entrepreneurs among South African youth.

“If we do not expect entrepreneurs to come from the ranks of those who have earned higher level knowledge and skills – university graduates – who will?” he asked.

For Mthembu, the emphasis on vocational training makes universities of technology best suited to produce the country’s next generation of much-needed entrepreneurs.

While traditional universities have climbed onto the entrepreneurship bandwagon, such programmes often focus on postgraduate MBAs and produce ‘intrapreneurs’ – people who drive innovations within their existing companies – rather than new entrepreneurs who come from outside the system to create something new, he said.

Igniting the spark

But it’s important to ignite the entrepreneurship spark much earlier.

“By the time students engage in postgraduate studies, their entrepreneurial spirit may have been somewhat impaired,” Mthembu argued.

“We know from life stories such as that of Steve Jobs, and others, that many university dropouts make great entrepreneurs. People of that ilk drop out not because they are not smart, but because they find the university’s educational system too stifling for them to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.

“My view is that we need to introduce entrepreneurship teaching and learning while the student is still in the formative stages of their academic journey.

“In this way we can immediately free the minds of those who would be entrepreneurs without them having to first spend many years pursuing theoretical ideas which they are expected to translate into reality later in life,” he said.

A student-initiated approach

A key part of this process is a student-initiated approach as opposed to a student-centred approach.

“The latter makes the student a more reactive participant to what a lecturer organises even if the programme is in an e-learning mode. The former makes the student a proactive initiator and pursuer of his or her dreams about tangible products and services they could produce for society,” said Mthembu.

Clearly, such an approach will take time to implement.

Mthembu told University World News that full integration of entrepreneurship and innovation at Central University of Technology and other universities of technology is a “big project that will concern us for many years”.

“The system is by no means fully geared towards transformation, but we are making progress,” he said.

Fortunately, there is support for entrepreneurship and innovation within the South African Technology Network or SATN, established to ensure cooperation, collaboration, support and joint activities such as curriculum development, applied research, quality assurance and cooperative education within universities of technology in South Africa and Namibia.

“We have been sharing our progress at SATN meetings and conferences over the past two years,” said Mthembu, who is also a former chair of SATN. The 2015 SATN conference had innovation and entrepreneurship as its focus, as will the upcoming 2016 conference to be held in Cape Town next month.

This signals how serious universities of technology are about innovation and entrepreneurship education, he said. “In 2015 we asked if the concept could gain any traction and I believe it has. We continue as network members to learn from one another,” he said.

Moving on

At Central University of Technology Mthembu leaves behind a solid foundation for growth of the entrepreneurship and innovation initiative, as he prepares to move to Durban University of Technology in KwaZulu-Natal in the next few weeks to take up the reigns of vice-chancellor after the departure of Professor Ahmed Bawa.

During his time there, Mthembu has overseen the introduction of the Incubator programme on the Bloemfontein and Welkom campuses where graduates enjoy support from the university, private sector and government agencies to develop enterprise ideas and eventually introduce them to the market.

Central University of Technology or CUT also hosts the Free State FabLab on its Bloemfontein campus, the fourth such laboratory to be commissioned and launched by the Department of Science and Technology.

Here, basic research is conducted with research institutes on specific advanced technology projects destined for applications. There are also plans to incorporate the FabLab in the development of a CUT Idea Generator for students and young people in the province.

Among many other initiatives, the university hosts an innovation week and encourages students’ participation in Enactus, an international network of student, academic and business leaders using entrepreneurial action to improve lives and contribute to a more sustainable world.

“Many of these initiatives are inspired by the Finnish approach and other successful programmes from abroad, although we still have a long way to go,” Mthembu said.

“We need to get beyond the point of simply identifying a few students with good ideas and working with them, to the point at which every student is taken through a well-designed methodology in a fully-fledged programme.

“In this way we will not only foster and nurture our students’ entrepreneurial spirit more widely, but provide opportunity for it to flourish in tangible ways that the broader society will countenance in new products and services in our city and region.”

* University World News – Africa – has a media partnership with the South African Technology Network involving a series of editorially independent articles that highlight interesting and important work by universities of technology.