Why entrepreneurship development in higher education is inevitable

08-06-21 USAf 0 comment

Entrepreneurship is as essential to reducing crippling poverty and unemployment as it is to boosting the economy. These were the opening remarks of Dr Engela van Staden (below left), Vice-Rector: Academic at the University of the Free State, at last week’s Executive Leadership Workshop (#ELW) of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme.

The workshop, themed Entrepreneurship at Universities, was convened by Universities South Africa’s EDHE Programme that is being implemented in partnership with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). The British Council and Stellenbosch University were also important collaborators on EDHE’s ELW 2021.

Speaking on Contextualising the history and purpose of EDHE, Dr van Staden explained how the concept of turning universities into entrepreneurial spaces came into being. At the time that EDHE was conceptualised, Dr van Staden was DHET’s Chief Director: Academic Planning and Management Support.

She told the audience of 40 that comprised – in the main — deputy vice-chancellors of most of South Africa’s public universities and senior leadership involved with entrepreneurship development, that the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) Index shows that South African youth, of all age groups in developing countries, are least likely to start a business.

To correct this, and through a long and carefully orchestrated process, EDHE would ultimately be born.

She further cited a research-based fact, that for a 1% increase in the new business entry rate, in South Africa, there was a corresponding 1,46% increase in GDP/capita, 0,69% reduction in unemployment and 1% increase in exports.

Furthermore, Dr van Staden shared that despite entrepreneurial education being successful in countries like Singapore, Denmark and Kenya, South Africa’s entrepreneurs believed not enough time was being spent teaching entrepreneurship – the reason few new firms succeeded. Locals had the view that young people needed to be provided with the skills, mindset and attitudes to start businesses and sustain them.

In South Africa, four key areas were therefore identified as necessary to successful implementation of entrepreneurship education: policy, private sector partnership and both curriculum and teacher development.

“Of course, we needed to develop all the components of the entrepreneurial ecosystem to support any education initiative,” Dr van Staden said.  “These had to also include government, the source of policy and funding support. Academic institutions had to explore the changing role of educators, and business needed to form partnerships, sponsorships and to become champions.”

2011: An enabling Entrepreneurship Technical Task Team is formed

Armed with statistics and the other facts shared above, South Africa launched the Human Resources Development Council of South Africa (HRDC-SA), an advisory body to the Presidency, in 2009. The then Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, government ministers, business leaders, trade union representatives, vice-chancellors and members of civil society members served on this Council, which is located within the Ministry of Higher Education and Training.

In 2011, the HRDC-SA established an Enabling Entrepreneurship Technical Task Team (TTT) – led by co-founder of CIDA City Campus, Dr Taddy Blecher, and Dr van Staden who represented DHET. The task team, which also had industry representatives, secured the support of the departments of Trade and Industry, Science and Technology and Basic Education.

Dr van Staden said the TTT set out to investigate the entrepreneurial landscape and find ways to introduce an integrated system of support.

“We wanted to create a vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystem at our universities, one that would encourage graduating students to consider entrepreneurship as a career path. One of the proposals was to create collaboration with and amongst the universities to help integrate entrepreneurship within curricula while bringing global best practices to the university environment.”

One of the criteria was to make the environment at universities easier for existing entrepreneurship bodies on campus to flourish while “stimulating innovation and technology transfer as downstream activities within the universities.”

The task team found was that while most higher education institutions offered some form of entrepreneurial education, traditional teaching methods were used and only to business students. Funding was also found to be a major challenge for 95% of the universities, which raised the need to find ways to fund this programme, Dr van Staden said.

In May 2011, academics met with the Higher Education Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, to present a business case for entrepreneurship and to persuade him for support.

2013: Launch of the Forum of Entrepreneurship Development Centres at Higher Education Institutions

In mid-2013, the Forum of Entrepreneurship Development Centres at Higher Education Institutions (FEDCI) was launched. Its aim was to get all South African universities involved in entrepreneurship development and to be a platform for the sharing of best practice in teaching, training and development and research.

It became evident that a commitment from vice-chancellors to entrepreneurship education and development was key to driving a successful process, backed by active buy in from senior university leadership and faculty members across the board.

FEDCI also established that entrepreneurship education had to be positioned across all faculties – not only in Commerce. Over time, FEDCI was recognised and empowered to drive the entrepreneurship agenda.

FEDCI marks the turning point of entrepreneurship

What is taken for granted today (but was forged in blood by FEDCI) was agreement from Universities to:

  • Establish entrepreneurship centres on campuses;
  • Re-focus entrepreneurship initiatives on the students;
  • Develop ‘best-practice’ courses and mechanisms for sharing;
  • Create a centralised knowledge sharing site ‘in the cloud’. Relevant IP should be shared and considered a national asset;
  • Allocate university funding specifically for entrepreneurship development
  • Initiate a new National Entrepreneurship Week

An early partner was the Dr Richard Maponya Institute for Skills and Entrepreneurship Development, which was established to promote vocational and technical training to foster entrepreneurship and reduce unemployment, poverty and inequality. ENACTUS, a global non-profit organisation that brings together students, academics and business leaders committed to improving living standards for people in need, also came on board.

The year 2016 was critical in the process that led to the birth of EDHE. It was in this year that Dr Norah Clarke was appointed as Project Manager. Her position was funded by the University of Johannesburg.

Goals and drivers are put in place

Goals and drivers were put in place for the development of student entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial academics and entrepreneurial universities, Dr van Staden continued.

Stakeholders had to be consulted, and a concept note for fund raising compiled.

Entrepreneurship development had to be positioned at a strategic level in universities outlining best practice and policy. Partnerships had to be forged, initiatives that focused on the student had to be developed and mechanisms had to be put in place to track and measure all progress.  EDHE became a national entrepreneurship development platform supported by Communities of Practice and an online knowledge-sharing system.

It would also hold annual intra-university entrepreneurship development indabas and run student entrepreneurship competitions and awards. All of this would be supported from university-based infrastructure – governed by agreements between EDHE and individual institutions. 

The Programme would also establish Communities of Practice (CoPs) which would facilitate the coming together on a national and regional level, of like-minded practitioners in entrepreneurship development. Through CoPs, best practices would be disseminated across the entrepreneurship development landscape and the impact of entrepreneurship development increased, Dr van Staden said.

The ultimate aim is to mould universities into entrepreneurial entities

EDHE’s ultimate aim is to help HEIs transition from institutions offering entrepreneurship education to becoming entrepreneurial universities.  Both students and universities stand to benefit from HEIs being entrepreneurial, Dr van Staden said, adding that “students and graduates need to become economically active, whereas universities need to generate a growing third-stream income.

“At most universities, however, this is not yet happening in a structured way. We find that the nature of entrepreneurial activity often does not lead to the generation of economic value.” She added that research and innovation are crucial aspects in the value chain and could lead to the development of products, patents and downstream activity in the form of commercialisation.

Dr van Staden said: “The terms innovation and entrepreneurship are, however, frequently used interchangeably, giving rise to research and innovation initiatives being considered entrepreneurial activities.  Similarly, successful community engagement and social entrepreneurial initiatives are often launched, but these do not usually result in students choosing to become entrepreneurs.”

2019 and beyond

EDHE is now the flagship programme of USAf, funded with a budget of R17,9m by the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme.  According to Dr van Staden, all the deliverables have either been met or are in the process of being achieved. In terms of structure and governance, EDHE has an advisory committee in place; operations have been established and are being maintained.

Solid collaborations have been established through public-private partnerships with the likes of the British Council, the US Embassy, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, the SAB foundation and First National Bank.

Furthermore, events such as the EDHE Lekgotla, the Intervarsity Competition, the Student Entrepreneurship Week and the Executive Leadership Workshops are firmly entrenched on the annual EDHE calendar.

Finally, groundbreaking projects such as the National University Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Baseline Research were completed in 2020. Key learnings with policy implications were drawn from this study findings. Institutions are now in the process of formulating and adopting their own entrepreneurship policies that will in turn, inform the national entrepreneurship policy. 

Stated differently, the EDHE programme has come a long way. DVCs, other senior executives and CoPs have their work clearly cut out — if this enormous enterprise is to be sustained within the public university sector.  

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.