Universities urged to not overlook undergraduate students in promoting entrepreneurship

20-06-21 USAf 0 comment

At a recent Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW), Dr Norah Clarke, Director: Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) prompted deputy vice-chancellors and executive management to find the gold in undergraduate students. Dr Clarke was speaking on opportunities available to universities through the EDHE programme.

She said that many times, institutions place the entrepreneurship focus on postgraduate students.

“A lot of good things are missed by universities because nobody stops to look at what is the gold in the undergraduates’ space,” she said. 

To support her statement, Dr Clarke called upon Professor Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement at the Durban University of Technology, to share a story of Mr Siyabonga Ndwalane (left), an undergraduate student who founded a successful business of manufacturing bluetooth sound speakers. 

This young man, who showcased his business at the EDHE Lekgotla in 2020, told the audience then, that his business idea was inspired by poor products in the market which, he found, were breaking all the time – forcing him to buy — time and again. Because of his love for music, Ndwalane, founder of Turnup Speakers, decided to create his own bluetooth speaker.  His first products were made from PVC pipes.  Professor Moyo says in the early stages of Ndwalane’s business, DUT was not involved. There were no structures at the time to support student entrepreneurship activities. However, that changed when the institution created a business desk. 

DUT then came in with resources: seed funding to buy power tools; mentorship to formulate a marketing strategy and the means to create videos and other marketing tools. In other words, DUT helped the young studentpreneur move from idea to solid product.

However, Professor Moyo (right) told her DVC peers that they realised that assisting Ndwalane from the side lines was not enough. DUT had to come on board as a client. 

Shifting her talk to support Dr Clarke’s plea, Professor Moyo said they had learned over time, at DUT, that students in some disciplines already knew, when they enrolled for undergraduate study, that they would take the entrepreneurship route. She cited Jewellery Design students, many of whom enrol with the mindset of starting their own businesses once they graduate. Furthermore, she said, disciplines such as Engineering and Health Sciences could be perfect breeding grounds for innovation. 

Even though she emphasised that DUT did not view entrepreneurship as something that only postgraduate students could pursue, she did, however, acknowledge that postgraduate students were more inclined to research their business ideas. This is something the university picked up, especially in the EDHE Intervarsity competition.

Dr Clarke beams as she narrates the story of Ndwalane. It presents solid evidence that undergraduates can succeed in entrepreneurship.  

She is certain that the success of Turnup Speakers is embedded in DUT’s support as a client — something that Dr Clarke encourages in all institutions, at all facets of their students’ businesses. 

What do universities do with final-year engineering students’ projects?

The EDHE Director then posed the question above to the audience, probing whether DVCs had not spotted opportunities to commercialise those projects. In response, Professor Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University, shared a few examples of what they do at his institution.

“We have a whole number of stories, such as spin-out companies like GeoSUN, for instance; they map the space where we build solar plants in South Africa. But, more recently on the renewable energy side, our students would go out to a home and do a complete survey of your needs to switch over to solar, do the costing of that and do the implementation of that… so they also build the system.” Professor Cloete commended SU’s Dean of the Engineering Faculty, whose focus is also channelled at entrepreneurship.

Engineering students at Stellenbosch University (SU) above, are enabled to start businesses from their final-year undergraduate projects. GeoSUN Africa, a spin-off company of SU’s Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES), now offers a variety of services and products relating to the solar energy industry in various countries in Africa and abroad.

Following Professor Cloete’s input, Dr Clarke said it was time universities began to share these inspiring narratives for the benefit of institutions which wish to follow suit but face challenges.

Recapping on EDHE objectives, she said: “Yes, we’re looking at the entrepreneurial university, which is what this workshop is about and yes, we look at student entrepreneurship, but of course we look at entrepreneurship through teaching and learning and research – the great work that is being done there across the ecosystem, and very importantly, across disciplines.

“We are now where we’re saying entrepreneurship should no longer be confined to the business domain, that is, the economic sciences domain.

“At the Lekgotla 2021 that we are bringing you in August, I am going to request you, as DVCs, to help us reach the deans in your institutions because we have discipline-specific sessions on what entrepreneurship looks like in, say, Agriculture. Of course, farming. Why do we not just call it that? Dr Martin [Dr Robert Martin, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Operations at the University of Venda], said earlier: should ‘we not be calling everything entrepreneurship?‘ Absolutely. 

“Let us call it whatever we want, but let us also look at: in what way do we teach students in Agriculture about business and about conducting business? Same with the Arts. I mean, we have musicians, but we do not think of music as entrepreneurship.

“The time has come to raise awareness across disciplines and speak to the deans across disciplines about what it means to prepare students in that particular discipline for entrepreneurial activity.” 

USAf’s Head of EDHE also reiterated that her programme’s focus in Phase Two, which just started in 2021, is to find the connection between teaching, research and entrepreneurship. She acknowledged the negative impact, in Phase One, of focusing solely on the sexy part of entrepreneurship development in higher education that focused on studentpreneurs. 

Moreover, she reminded her audience that EDHE truly wishes to shine the spotlight on institutions’ best practice in entrepreneurship. She said the goal is to showcase, applaud and move the entire higher education sector forward. 

“We learn from each other, because ultimately, as much as there are rankings, we are more concerned about the young people out there who need to get to a point where they can become economically active. That is what we are positioning for, increasingly. So, this our approach: a very lean, scalable programme, achieving a lot with the little that we have. We have big dreams for the country and for the continent,” she added. 

Dr Clarke, once again, pleaded with the university leadership to not forget nor underestimate undergraduate students.

United Nations Economic Commission for Africa – a pilot study

She also disclosed that the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), through the Department of Science and Innovation and the Department of Higher Education and Training, had approached EDHE to represent South Africa and participate in a pilot study. A UNECA Study on Advancing Entrepreneurial Universities in Africa would involve five African countries that seek to advance entrepreneurial universities in the continent. To that end, UNECA tasked EDHE to identify five institutions in the country with suitable examples of best practice in entrepreneurial development at a university level. 

At the time of the workshop, three universities, namely, Stellenbosch University, the Durban University of Technology and Nelson Mandela University, had agreed to participate in the study, and EDHE was waiting for two more institutions to grant ethical clearance and then proceed.

EDHE’s Communities of Practice

She then briefly touched on the communities of practice within EDHE — that universities can replicate at their institutions. She said doing so had proven to give clear direction in achieving entrepreneurship goals for institutions. 

The EDHE CoPs are as follows:

  • EDHE CoP for Entrepreneurial Universities (CoP for EU)
  • EDHE CoP for Entrepreneurship Learning and Teaching (CoP for L&T)
  • EDHE CoP for Entrepreneurship Research (CoP for ER)
  • EDHE CoP for Student Entrepreneurship (CoP for SE)
  • EDHE Studentpreneurs CoP (Student CoP)

Due to time constraints, Dr Clarke focused on the Studentpreneurs CoP.  She mentioned that certain institutions were not represented in this CoP and urged that they rectify that situation.  “We cannot listen to a million students, but we can listen to 26. The university nominates a student who is known to be an entrepreneur and, that student then engages us, and feeds back to the institution,” she concluded.

The Executive Leadership Workshop was hosted by EDHE in collaboration with the British Council and Stellenbosch University. EDHE is being implemented by USAf in partnership with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Nqobile Tembe, the writer, is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.

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