Two months ago, Stellenbosch University posted on LinkedIn that its Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, Professor Eugene Cloete, had been selected as the Chairperson of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Community of Practice for Entrepreneurial Universities.
Reposted by the professor and the EDHE team, the post generated 31 322 reads, 709 likes, and 157 comments. In fact, more people read it than students at Stellenbosch University.
“You have no idea how much influence you have, colleagues.That is from only one post,” said Dr Norah Clarke (left), Director: EDHE at Universities South Africa (USAf). EDHE is one of USAf’s flagship programmes and Clarke was speaking at the Executive Leadership Workshop that this programme was hosting in Stellenbosch from June 2 to 4.
“You all have that kind of support; you have that visibility, and your power is tremendous,” she said. Later she added: “It would be lovely if you could support our work on LinkedIn”.
Dr Clarke was updating the workshop participants, mostly deputy vice-chancellors at South Africa’s public universities, on EDHE’s key activities, “so that you understand the big picture of the entrepreneurship activities and support platforms in your own institutions,” she said. “You might not even be aware of the way in which your colleagues are involved in entrepreneurship.”
Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf’s CEO, often speaks about the fact that universities have lost their publics, Clarke said, and “we’re very aware that entrepreneurship can play a very important role in reconnecting us with our publics”. She said universities need to work much closer with industry, to collaborate, and foster a closer relationship with the private sector, the public sector, and the world of work as part of the publics of the university.
She also stressed how happy the EDHE team was to talk to university leaders about entrepreneurship. This was especially important now, she said, when EDHE was about to introduce several changes which, it must be noted, were suggestions open to discussion.
EDHE is trying out a new position at universities
For the first example, Dr Clarke mentioned that EDHE was about to introduce an economic activation officer at participating universities. This position will go to someone who is already appointed, has some clout, and who will be taken seriously by university leadership. The person will also need to be someone equally capable of connecting and communicating with students. Dr Clarke said a small budget has been set aside to contribute towards salaries in this regard.
The economic activation officer will be the person that the EDHE team from the USAf Office will be engaging with, to provide support and to capacitate internally in institutions.The economic activation officer, or office, will be the central point of information, a type of sophisticated and intelligent reception desk for anyone – an external person, a student or staff member, someone from industry, someone from the public sector – who would want to know and understand what is available in terms of entrepreneurship support and resources in a particular university. The person will also be expected to build bridges to the community. And the role might expand to be more than one person.
At the EDHE Lekgotla 2021, which is taking place in the first week of August, Dr Clarke’s team will be identifying five universities to participate in a pilot of this model. She said some universities had already expressed an interest.
EDHE “borrowed” this idea of an economic activation officer from the Durban University of Technology (DUT), Clarke said. It is like DUT’s entrepreneurship desk that Professor Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Research, Innovation and Engagement has established in the Midlands. The entrepreneurship desk was a response to a previous challenge identified at the DUT, where it was hard to establish a connection at each of their campuses. So, they created an office with one staff member on two of their campuses, one in the Midlands and another in Durban. “And things just got connected and moving, thanks also to DVCs opening doors,” said Dr Clarke. Two year later, that entrepreneurship desk has grown into a massive building with lots of activity.
Both Professor Moyo and her colleague, Professor Nokuthula Sibiya, DVC for Teaching and Learning, were attending EDHE’s executive leadership workshop. “That is the kind of message we see from a university that says, ‘we’re doing this anyway’. That is commitment. So, we learned from them and we came up with this model,” said Clarke.
The EDHE Director said the programme already has “an incredible network of people connected to each other across the universities, very often on peer level, like yourselves here,” she said. Now they were bringing in a little bit of support to improve that coordination. “These are just functions. I am sure every institution will choose their own names,” she said.
This had already happened at the University of Venda (UNIVEN), where the university needed to do something to boost entrepreneurship. According to Dr Robert Martin, DVC: Operations, it had taken a few hours’ workshop with internal stakeholders for him to understand the entrepreneurship ecosystem at UNIVEN and the options available to them. That was when they decided to replicate within the institution, the communities of practice that were operating at the national level.
“I want to point out that any leader in a position of influence can bring about change. Dr Robert Martin is DVC for Operations. Sometimes we have discussions about whether entrepreneurship is the responsibility of the DVC:Academic or the DVC:Research. No, it can be any leader really. Robert Martin is a brilliant example,” said Clarke.
She said universities focused on community engagement because it is a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) in their jobs but forget their own students are part of the communities they engage with. “We dare not do that,” she said. That is why EDHE also has aCommunity of Practice for Student Entrepreneurship which draws together individuals co-ordinating this area within different universities, and the Community of Practice for Studentpreneurs, which gives students already running enterprises, a voice.
She said the EDHE CoPs were now following the example of USAf’s other CoPs, of operating on a closed membership of nominated membersas opposed to open membership where people could come and go as they wish. Once a year, at the beginning of the year, they will invite nominations to these CoPs. Each CoP has tasks teams, but which might be known by different names.
An initiative to boost female student entreprenuers
For the second example, Dr Clarke mentioned SWEEP (Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme) — another programme to be launched officially at the EDHE Lekgotla 2021. She said this will not be a project with a start and end date, but a safety net programme of transferable and practical skills and opportunities. The programme was conceptualised as a response to South Africa’s unemployment, gender-based violence and under-representation of student women in business. “It might well grow beyond EDHE and beyond our country,” said Dr Clarke.
“And I think many women in this room know exactly why this is necessary. Many men in this room, who understand some of these power imbalances and some of the challenges, would also be supportive,” she said, further appealing for university leaders’ support in sharing information with student women who are interested in exploring entrepreneurial activity as a means to participating in the economy.
It was important to note that SWEEP is not a training initiative. It is rather a programme partnering with training entities, where female students are matched with opportunities. “Not employment, not money, but opportunities of learning and access to networks,” Dr Clarke clarified.
Regarding the annual Lekgotla, scheduled for Pretoria from August 2 to 6, she warned the workshop participants that EDHE would be flooding them with information. Physical attendance will be open only to members of EDHE and membership details are on edhe.co.za.
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.
Through ELW 2021, the EDHE Programme was looking to achieve a shared understanding among DVCs and other executive university leaders, on the characteristics of entrepreneurial universities in the South African context; to equip and strengthen the DVCs to promote entrepreneurship at their universities and engage in institutional entrepreneurship policy development work as relevant to their contexts; to instill in DVCs a clear understanding of their role as executive leaders at their institutions and, ultimately, to increase the number of universities with entrepreneurship development policies.
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.