The entrepreneurial university is an ‘emergent space’

Universities are the sites where smart people converge and where innovation thrives. From this, universities are fertile ground for instilling entrepreneurship skills in every student and graduate to contribute to economic development.

This is one of the themes that emerged from the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme’s fifth Lekgotla 2021, held last week at the Future Africa Campus of the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

The four-day hybrid conference brought together university leaders involved in entrepreneurship development, students, government officials and business representatives.

EDHE is an initiative of the South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in partnership with Universities South Africa (USAf), an organisation that represents South African public universities.

The Lekgotla 2021 was intended to facilitate the sharing of good practice and emerging practices and initiatives in university entrepreneurship education. The conference brought new insights and recommendations while developing key aspects in positioning universities for their role in entrepreneurship, innovation, commercialisation and policy development.


The theme of this year’s conference was entrepreneurship #againstallodds, which looked at developing entrepreneurship at universities in the wake of the impact of COVID-19, which exacerbated South Africa’s high unemployment rate. The youth unemployment rate is 64% and the economy has been struggling to absorb graduates.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, said that, in the face of South Africa’s “horrendous” unemployment rate, which was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, students tend to think that “passing exams” and getting a qualification has “transactional value” in terms of their getting a job.

However, universities should instil a culture of entrepreneurship among all students, so that some can join the entrepreneurship ecosystem and become a part of the economy.

Bawa said that instilling a culture of entrepreneurship among students could “unleash brilliance and creativity”, whereby young people can move in different directions.

He provided an example of an engineer becoming a musician and that, while it is good to have big industries manufacturing cars and ships, South Africa needs to create enterprises and small and medium businesses, which play a major role in building the economy.

“South Africa is a multilayered democracy, and we have a complex, globally connected economy. We have 17 million people on social grants, which is an achievement on one hand, but a symptom of something very, very wrong with our society,” Bawa said.

For Bawa, apart from the high unemployment rate, poverty, food security and climate change are grand challenges, while transformation means broadening and deepening the base of the economy, so that many people can enter it.

Fertile ground to bolster development

Dr Victor Konde of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) said: “It is not just the MITs and Stanfords that have been driving development in their regions, but many of our universities have played a role in the past.”

Furthermore, universities are fertile ground for seeding new businesses and promoting new knowledge.

“They are natural incubators” where brilliant minds reside. He pointed out that an entrepreneurial university does not refer to a university running a hotel and raising funds for itself.

“They are knowledge machines and are run like quasi firms where a research group raises its own funds, pays itself and operates like a business.”

However, the “entrepreneurship activities of a university population are lower than [those of] the general community ... This is not just a trend in Africa, but it is prevalent in the rest of the world.”

He questioned: “Do they [universities] scare everyone by teaching them that entrepreneurship is a complicated and a risky business and, therefore, they should stay away from it? I don’t have an answer to that.”

Mandisa Cakwe of the DHET conceded that the higher education sector has been underfunded and has been experiencing declining subsidies.

This has resulted in universities generating third-stream income and is the reason why the DHET is funding the EDHE through its University Capacity Development Programme.

This focuses on student, staff and curriculum development. She said the EDHE programme aims to ensure that “every student and graduate is equipped to participate in the economy and to support the development of universities as ecosystems for entrepreneurship and innovation … We want to see all universities implementing student-focused entrepreneurship. Not some, but all.”

Entrepreneurial universities

Dr Norah Clarke, the director of entrepreneurship at USAf, said the sector is starting to see the character of entrepreneurial universities which are developing across institutions.

“They have quickly become a thing – there is a growing movement,” while vice-chancellors are playing an important role in advocating for this. Furthermore, entrepreneurism is being included in strategic plans at universities.

She pointed to the findings of a pilot study, commissioned by the UNECA Study on Advancing Entrepreneurial Africa in Africa, which is a review of existing efforts towards building entrepreneurial universities in Africa.

The findings will inform the UNECA and EDHE, in terms of investment, efforts, and time to promote entrepreneurship.

According to Chimene Chetty, the research consultant for EDHE, who was involved in the pilot study on entrepreneurship at Durban University of Technology (DUT), Stellenbosch University (SU) and Nelson Mandela University (NMU), “there is no common definition of an entrepreneurial university”.

It is seen as an expansion of the mandate of a university in terms of social good and impact. Universities are civil society players.

“There is no consensus what this entrepreneurial university should look like. It is an emergent space and people are trying to make sense of it,” Chetty said.

The study looked at seven aspects of an entrepreneurial university in line with the HEInnovate tool, designed by the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The tool focuses on leadership and governance; organisation capacity, people and incentives; entrepreneurship development in teaching and learning; pathways for entrepreneurs; measuring the impact of an entrepreneurial university; the entrepreneurial university as an international institution and university-business or external relationships for knowledge exchange.

In terms of the ownership of entrepreneurship, this was located in different spaces – at DUT and SU a deputy vice-chancellor was overseeing it.

NMU has “multiple ownership”. “They set up a strategic resource mobilisation unit which becomes pivotal in terms of raising funds and resources for their own enterprising projects. They are starting to look at entrepreneurial activities and student entrepreneurship.”

In terms of policy, NMU and DUT have two policies, while SU has no specific policy but provides big support for commercialism and intellectual property (IP). All three have technology transfer offices and are looking to expand that.

In terms of staff support, DUT and NMU are starting to build on this as they realise their internal ecosystem needs attention.

SU provides support mostly in the form of commercialisation and IP. “They understand the value chain and that it doesn’t start at the end of research,” said Chetty.

All three institutions see community engagement as important and a co-creation of the process, where there are different power dynamics. They bring people together and are able to say, “How can we add value and make impact?” This is not structured, but there is intervention.

In terms of funding for student entrepreneurship and support for activities, “there are different pots”.

DUT has a dedicated fund while NMU gets it from the strategic resources management office. At SU, funds come through competitions, while they have a social impact fund: If an initiative is showing potential for social impact, it could get funds.

Baseline study needed

The study recommends that there is a need for an audit and baseline study of entrepreneurship in universities.

Said Chetty: “We need to understand what is happening. We need to also understand the resources.” Furthermore, there is a need for a monitoring and measurement framework.

“Universities are complex, difficult and lumbering spaces to navigate … we need accountability, we need to look at how we are doing and ‘are we doing it well?’ There is a need to create indicators and benchmarks. How do we make changes?”

There is also a need for the establishment of a centralised research repository for the knowledge needs of all universities, while regular discussion forums are needed.

Chetty stressed that “national policy is needed to legitimise entrepreneurship at universities.

“Practitioners and academics are tired of being activists within universities for entrepreneurship.”

Other recommendations from the study include:

• The mapping of the different capacities and skills required for entrepreneurial universities and their ecosystems.

• Exploration of how and by what means to incentivise staff support for entrepreneurship in universities.

• Sustainable funding for entrepreneurship activities, and

• EDHE has a critical advocacy, co-ordinating, leading, knowledge management and capacity building role to play.

The report of the study is available for download.

More information on the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme’s fifth Lekgotla 2021 can be accessed here.