Student leaders asked to roll out entrepreneurship programme

Student leaders are being recruited to roll out an online entrepreneurship training programme to their fellows.

The programme, which uses the Telegram instant messaging app to deliver coursework, has already been piloted among a limited number of students at universities of technology in South Africa.

Now the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA), a consortium of technology-focused institutions, which developed the programme in partnership with Munster Technological University in Ireland, and the Technology Innovation Agency in South Africa, wants many more students to sign up, with a target of 200 students this year and a further 200 in 2024.

Rather than looking to the teaching staff of its member universities to promote the programme, the network was pinning its hopes on student representative councils (SRCs). These are a sometimes fractious grouping, often energised by party and radical politics as much as by bread-and-butter issues.

Dr Anshu Padayachee, THENSA’s chief executive, said South African universities offered entrepreneurship as modules rather than as a full course and that their efforts to get lecturers to promote the programme had achieved little success.

SRCs were thought to be a better bet, allowing valuable peer-to-peer learning as opposed to the conventional top-down approach.

Padayachee was addressing 22 SRC presidents, their deputies and deans of student affairs at a programme training workshop in Umhlanga, near South Africa’s east coast city of Durban, on 7 February.

Students often do not have time for the entrepreneurship programmes run by universities, she said. Nor do they wish to “talk to old fuddy-duddies like me”, preferring to take instruction and mentoring from their tech-savvy contemporaries.

How the programme works

The programme, developed thanks to about ZAR1-million (about US$56,000) in funding from the Irish Embassy in South Africa, was free to students. It was intended for use on laptops, cellphones and other smart devices.

Course material was delivered in the form of chats, a format that would be immediately familiar to users of messaging apps like the market-leading WhatsApp and its rival, Telegram.

Students also received audio clips, video and other material, which could be downloaded. Coursework could be tackled online or offline – depending on whether data was available – and then submitted.

Padayachee said she would be meeting the vice-chancellors of South Africa’s six universities of technology on 16 March and would urge them to contribute to support offices, including student mentors to help their peers with the programme.

“You [the SRCs] will advertise, market it and select the first cohort. You will be trained and you can train others to run this programme,” she said.

Padayachee said that, by helping to recruit, select and support trainees, the SRCs would be offering a service of real value to students. This was especially true in South Africa where nearly one in three young graduates (aged 15-24) was unemployed, according to official figures released in June.

A little good PR would not hurt the reputations of the student councils either, she said.

“I would like this programme to be run by the SRCs so you are not only seen as organisations that do political activism; so that you are seen as giving back to your communities. We want students to understand that you are not only interested in fighting.”

Students would be given eight weeks to finish the programme, failing which they would be deregistered. Those who complete its six modules would receive a properly accredited certificate, useful for job hunting. But even those who drop out would acquire skills from participating, such as how to start a business, leadership style and marketing.

Entrepreneurship a ‘pressing need’

Padayachee said South Africa had a pressing need for entrepreneurship training and the skills learned would be as useful to employees as much as to those aiming to run their own businesses.

Starting and running side business while at university was fun, stimulating and a valuable source of funds for students, she said.

“I would love to see students set up start-ups at university,” she said, offering as examples small businesses that printed notes for students or provided quick meals. She felt students should form consortia with their peers, with the different members contributing different skills, from marketing to accountancy. THENSA would approach big business to support them, she said.

“You can’t wait until you graduate to become an entrepreneur. I want you [SRCs] to advise the students to take this programme. We were not successful working with the lecturers. I want you, as the SRC, to be owners of this,” Padayachee said.

Delegates were invited to enrol and complete the first module at the workshop so they could see how the programme worked and get a little training which they might share with others later.

Some reported that it was “easy”. However, admin or technical hitches and a somewhat involved registration protocol – necessary for the workshop – prevented some delegates from logging in or frustrated their progress.

The programme’s data architect, Willie Cloete, promised things were much easier for regular students and that registration might be further simplified with the introduction of QR [quick response] codes.

Nonetheless, the difficulties did underscore the need for student mentors and trouble-shooters.

Students support the programme

By a show of hands, delegates were in favour of rolling out the programme at their universities.

Speaking from the floor and later in interviews with University World News, they broadly welcomed the programme but also raised a few concerns.

Some were excited that the programme would make students wealth creators, while others questioned the sustainability of the initiative and stressed that financing and partnerships were needed to bring students’ entrepreneurial visions to life or help them grow.

Padayachee countered that the SRCs would be asked to select students with “great ideas”.

THENSA would introduce the stars to organisations and big businesses who could help, she said, sketching a few details of the partnerships the network has forged and a few initiatives it was involved with, including tyre and e-waste recycling.

Vusi Mthethwa, SRC president of Mangosuthu University of Technology, was positive about the programme and felt it would be appreciated by active, engaged students.

He said it was a way for students to acquire skills and create jobs for others, so it chimed with the SRC’s passion for radical change that addressed big social issues that affected students, including the economy.

“Entrepreneurship is one of the things we focus on,” he said, adding it was one of the ways the SRC sought to tackle the deskilling that was a consequence of colonialism.

Mathelemusa Andisani, representing the director of student affairs at the University of Venda, said the programme went beyond commonplace projects that provided modest cash grants to help students start businesses for a year. Instead, it looked further into the future – and beyond campus.

Albert Mbada, a coordinator of the executive director for student affairs at Tshwane University of Technology, wondered whether vice-chancellors, already under pressure to help the “missing middle” would be keen to foot the bill for stipends for mentors, an idea mooted at the workshop.

The missing middle refers to students above the ceiling that qualifies them for student financial aid, but not really rich enough to afford university.

Mbada said THENSA seemed to be proposing that each university establish a single programme support office, but what to do in the case of universities with a number of campuses?

As a teacher, he said he would have liked the workshop to have provided a better sense of the programme’s content.

That said, Mbada welcomed the initiative. He said it “talks to what students are currently doing”, notably trading on campus; would keep students away from social ills; and would assist them to think broadly.