Wits is breaking barriers with a plan for a dual degree to develop innovation

Professor Nithaya Chetty (right) was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in December 2019 and immediately started tackling the problem of PhDs – about what they will do when they complete the qualification.

He outlined his ideas in his presentation, Growing University Commercialisation through the Postgraduate Research Pipeline, which formed part of the discussion on The University as Catalyst for Entrepreneurial Change at the recent Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla.

Professor Nithaya Chetty

Wits want to introduce a PhD with a simultaneous qualification in innovation

Professor Chetty's proposal is to choose a group of 25 to 30 top students, not necessarily all from science disciplines, and register them to do a PhD plus a new qualification, concurrently. The new qualification will be a Master of Science in Innovation. It will include a practical project. The two qualifications will run in parallel so the students will graduate with two degrees after four years. It will be developed gradually, beginning with a semester course and then a postgraduate one-year diploma, before the new qualification gets off the ground.

"This has been my holy grail for a long time," said Chetty, who is also Vice President of the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics.

He aspires to generate PhD graduates who go on to create slots in the economy

The goal in South Africa is to produce about 6000 annual PhD graduates by 2025. Although Wits has a strategic plan and is on track to increase PhDs to 45% of its total student population, Prof Chetty sees the government's goal as largely aspirational, considering the country is now achieving half that number.

He sees a potential crisis looming about the future of their PhD students: if more will be produced, where are all these PhD students going to be employed? The higher education system is already saturated. Yet academics continue to say they want their best students to remain in academia. Why, asks Prof Chetty. The solution is to make PhD graduates more employable, not to occupy slots in the economy but to create slots in the economy, he said.

"I think our current generation of graduates are much more intent on making a meaningful contribution to society, and we ought to capitalise on that," said Prof Chetty.

The concept of step zero

An entrepreneurial ecosystem exists but does not always work well. Students from all disciplines come up with ideas but so many factors play a role that the probability of commercial success is way less than 1%, said Prof Chetty. Agencies within and outside of universities are designed to help budding innovators but Prof Chetty wants to take a step back. He wants to know: "What does step zero look like? What is it that we ought to be doing, especially in our universities, to ensure we have an increasing number of exciting ideas that come bubbling through the system?"

The biggest problem with the entrepreneurial ecosystem is that it relies too much "on ideas accidentally percolating through the system", he said. As a scientist, he wants to increase this probability by conceptualising what step zero is, that is, what we need to be doing before we even think about ideas percolating into step one.

The future of innovation lies in students

Professor Chetty, who is a theoretical physicist with a doctorate from the University of Illinois in the US, does not want to dilute existing disciplines. He cites the example of quantum gravity. If that is what someone has spent the better part of their and career working on, he thinks it is very difficult for that person to change midstream. Neither does he think it's healthy for the higher education system to demand that.

Now is the time to be training young scientists in business methodology, he proposed. Many science PhDs do opt for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) but it is often either an afterthought or an act of desperation when they cannot find a job. For Professor Chetty, step zero is where one pulls ideas from science into the business world. Universities are reservoirs of potentially viable commercial ideas that need to be exploited more.

Young scientists need to be inspired to think more creatively about their work with a view to finding more practical and viable applications, he went on to say. But he wants to do this without diluting the rigour of academic degrees and, even though innovations hubs are important, without turning universities into technology centres.

"The strongest basis for innovation remains in fundamental research-led universities. This is the engine room for new ideas, but more importantly, this is the engine room for bright students. And that's what I want to reach out to", he said.

He dismisses the notion that a dual degree is neither permissible not advisable

He is not interested in what he calls the "same old, same old'' concerns that will see them stuck with the same old solutions. He believes they must look at ways of making new ideas work, rather than be constrained by administrative and bureaucratic requirements.

The curriculum of the new degree

Wits is busy developing the curriculum, looking at what makes a Master of Science different from an MBA in innovation or a Master of Commerce in innovation. Worldwide, ideas are emerging about what innovation training entails, and this is the beginning of what he calls step zero.

The business part will be taught by business experts, and the science by scientists and innovators. They want to recruit people from industry "who have walked the journey from scientific principle all the way to successful enterprise", he said. And they want to teach by way of case examples, much in the same way law is taught with precedents. And students will work in syndicates of about five PhD students from different disciplines, and work on projects – learning by doing. This should inspire students to think more innovatively about their PhD research so it will enhance excellence in research, and not degrade their research project in any way. He believes this approach of two concurrent degrees will produce science graduates who will look forward to entering the world beyond university, and will be equipped and inspired to do so.

Questions from the virtual audience at the Lekgotla

Question Is the Intellectual Property (IP) model, and shared research fair and equitable?

Answer: Our system is too hung up on IP, and it is expensive and that is a barrier. I would rather take a more practical approach and start working on prototyping ideas and finding the path to commercialisation.

Question How do we measure research output working towards the commercialisation agenda of universities?

Answer: I do not want to impact in any negative way on the PhD. All the requirements in terms of peer reviewed publications and a thesis that is properly examined must continue unhindered. The second qualification does not need to be measured in terms of IP and patents, but in terms of very practical outputs.

In South Africa, we need to take a much more practical approach to innovation and get inspired by the path traversed by previous successful innovators. Hopefully that invokes in the best of our students a creative spirit that gets them to think more smartly, more creatively, more innovatively about the world around them.

Question What are your top three takeaways for universities about constructing programmes that enable entrepreneurial mindsets?

Answer: Scientists need to take the responsibility for exposing our students more to the ideas of innovation. Changing the culture for innovation in our universities does not necessarily have to be as ambitious as what we are trying to achieve. There's a lot one can do on the undergraduate level with an optional course, for example.

And thirdly, we are not alone in this. Many institutions around the world are grappling with very similar challenges and we can work collaboratively. Wits University has a long standing bilateral arrangement with the University of Edinburgh and we have struck up a very good conversation around this, and are jointly developing these ideas. So international collaboration is important.

The thought leadership that Professor Chetty shared at the 4th annual EDHE Lekgotla was heard by no fewer than 1221 delegates from around the world. This conference attendees comprised studentpreneurs from South Africa's 26 public universities, academics and senior leaders from the sector, including policymakers as well as delegates from Africa, Ghana and Nigeria, in Africa, and also from parts of Europe and the United States.

The EDHE programme, that is driving entrepreneurship development at public universities, is a flagship programme of Universities South Africa that is being funded, in the main, from the Department of Higher Education and Training's University Capacity Development Programme.


The author, Gillian Anstey, is an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa

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