Universities hold the key to South Africa's economic recovery – speakers at the opening of EDHE Lekgotla 2020 concede

The first two speakers at the opening session of the 4th annual national Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla were such a hit that the keynote speaker, the South African Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, abandoned his prepared speech to engage with the points they had made.

The motivation was to reinforce the shared thought leadership to motivate the higher education community about what South Africa's university sector is doing and is capable of achieving.

The theme of the virtual lekgotla, from 14 to 18 September 2020, is #AfroTech – African Entrepreneurship through Technology. Professor Henk de Jager, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Bloemfontein-based Central University of Technology (CUT) and Chairperson of the World of Work Strategy Group of Universities South Africa (USAf), welcomed the more than 1000 registered delegates from South Africa, the rest of the continent, Europe and the US.

USAf, the association representing South Africa's 26 public universities, implements the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme in partnership with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). The EDHE Programme, in turn, hosts the annual EDHE Lekgotla.

Dr Nzimande spoke of the doom and gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it had wreaked havoc globally, challenging people personally, emotionally, psychologically, physically, socially and economically. "Universities will never be the same again," he said.

However, the silver lining of the pandemic was that "our gatherings are no longer restricted by budget, logistical dynamics, and travelling." COVID-19 had also presented a challenge to young people to rise and lead our economic recovery. "I am saying this with reservations, considering that it is being said this pandemic is here to stay," the Minister said, adding that he admired the Europeans' current talk of "economic bouncing forward, not back." South Africa could not afford to wish to bounce back to the pre-Covid-19 economy. "We should also rather bounce forward. Our youth must identify the right partners in creating enterprises that will help their communities. Universities also hold the key to reviving the long-term effects of the pandemic on the economy." He said the way to do this was to enhance universities' entrepreneurial programmes -- one of the focus areas of the USAf World of Work Strategy Group.

Professor de Jager said fortunately everyone has a creative streak in them. Also acknowledging the abundant talent in students, Professor de Jager said institutions need only create an environment conducive to unlocking this creativity by creating platforms, on campuses, and opportunities like this Lekgotla.

One way CUT was doing this was through a former gymnasium hall now refurbished and turned into an Idea-Gym -- what Professor de Jager referred to as the i-Gym. This walk-in facility is open to students, staff and community members to bring their ideas and access experts who would help transform those ideas into viable business models.

Every person has a creative streak in them, Professor Henk de Jager, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Central University of Technology (CUT) and Chairperson of the World of Work Strategy Group, said. Universities need to create a conducive environment to unlock this creativity, and transform students into real entrepreneurs. [Photo: supplied by CUT].
Professor Henk de Jager
Every person has a creative streak in them, Professor Henk de Jager, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Central University of Technology (CUT) and Chairperson of the World of Work Strategy Group, said. Universities need to create a conducive environment to unlock this creativity, and transform students into real entrepreneurs. [Photo: supplied by CUT].

Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf's CEO, picked up on the idea of effecting change in South Africa through entrepreneurial universities. Having attended the previous day's proceedings which had focused on studentpreneurs, he said he would like the Minister, Dr Nzimande, to meet the students who had made presentations about their projects. "It is all just so unbelievably invigorating, " he said. "We are on the cusp of something really special, I think, as we head into the future."

Our success lies in creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem – Bawa says

Elaborating on the three goals of the EDHE programme, Professor Bawa dwelt on:

  • How universities could provide all students with the opportunity to engage in some form of entrepreneurial thinking. He said even if students knew, as he had as a 10-year-old child, that they were never going to go into business, they needed to be exposed to entrepreneurial thinking, to learn to engage with the world of ideas and knowledge in its broad sense, as well as its use value;
  • How to ensure university staff were equipped to inculcate the entrepreneurial spirit in students -- a big challenge considering that many academics had been groomed in the most traditional tracks; and
  • How to galvanise universities to become more innovative and entrepreneurial.

The success of this depended on having an entrepreneurial ecosystem, created by government in partnership with business and universities, to ensure a "shift in our economy towards greater levels of innovation, optimising the opportunity presented by the new technological era that we're in now".

Prof Ahmed Bawa
"If we're truly going to engage in entrepreneurial thinking, we should encourage our students to work across disciplines – combining sciences and humanities to create integrated knowledge-- and to bring together the theory-praxis nexus", Professor Ahmed Bawa, the USAf CEO, said.

Initiatives such as this annual EDHE Lekgotla provide platforms for all 26 universities to participate in these conversations, the USAf CEO said, to create something with long-lasting impact. "We need to keep talking about broadening the base of the economy by deliberately grooming young people who will enter that space with vigour.

"Ultimately, this is about producing a new generation of intellectuals who aspire to create jobs," Professor Bawa went on to say. "Entrepreneurial thinking is also about utilising the knowledge we obtain to improve our quality of life. The work of EHDE is at the heart of the transformation of our universities."

In his concluding remarks, the USAf CEO said "if we're truly going to engage in entrepreneurial thinking, we should encourage our students to work across disciplines – combining sciences and humanities to create integrated knowledge and to bring together the theory-praxis nexus.

"Look outward as a student; do not grow inwardly. Look beyond the classroom in growing your knowledge base, to identify problems and meet market demands."

Lastly, Professor Bawa referred to what he called South Africa's "terrible innovation chasm'' where ''we produce extensive research, but that research doesn't translate into innovation".

Filling this gap would take students looking more purposefully at their research projects, with intent to generate products that responded to market needs and demands.

Dr Nzimande wasted no time in responding to these points, first complaining that the myriad initiatives being undertaken in Higher Education were taking place under the radar. "It strikes me that these good things are not getting the publicity they deserve – if only to motivate our youngsters and share information."

Extend the entrepreneurial spirit to TVETs and other sectors, Minister Nzimande urges

He agreed with Prof de Jager that it was small and medium-sized enterprises that would save the day. He implored the universities playing a role in the development of entrepreneurship to reach out to Technical and Vocational Education (TVET) colleges so that they are not left behind. Entrepreneurship needed to become a priority in the entire post-school education and training (PSET) sector, Minister Nzimande said.

He also invited universities to consider the recommendations of the Ministerial Task Team on implications of the 4th Industrialisation on the PSET sector. "We do not just aspire to be part of a technological revolution, but rather to create new technologies ourselves. The question is: how do we exploit the South African case and mobilise institutions that would support us in this effort? Of course universities, especially Universities of Technology (UoT), are key." This is where he emphasised the need for UoTs to engage the TVET sector and mobilise a whole lot of institutions to bring about unprecedented revolution.

He commended Vice-Chancellors for the visible support they were giving students in this regard.

Now that entrepreneurship was taking root within the university system, the Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister called USAf's attention to state-owned entities (SOE). "Our effort for entrepreneurial training will include strengthening private-public partnerships. SOEs are badly leaking. But let's not write them off but engage them in their role," Dr Nzimande had thus planted a thought.

He welcomed Professor Bawa's idea to meet the students who participate in entrepreneurial activity, and to do so outside the context of a Lekgotla or conference, just to engage them about their experience. It would be a learning curve for him, he added, from which "I will draw great lessons".

His last word, aimed at the studentpreneurs in attendance, was that they are now role models to those coming after them. The point was for them to perform this role with a sense of responsibility.

To universities, he urged that they continue to work on removing all barriers to this worthy initiative. As he apologised for not being able to listen to all the Lekgotla 2020 sessions, he encouraged institutions of higher learning to keep inspiring one another. "You are the leaders that our world needs right now. Good luck."

Dr Blade Nzimande
Universities, especially Universities of Technology, should consider engaging the TVET sector to also inculcate the entrepreneurial spirit in them, Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Science and Innovation, appealed.

While all attendees to the Lekgotla 2020 are connecting via the Whova App from their homes, the broadcast is being controlled from Universities South Africa's offices in Hatfield, Pretoria. A boardroom has been converted into a makeshift television studio from where continuity presenters Ms Ntsiki Mkhize and Mr Linda Dhladhla are keeping the action flowing.

The Author, Gillian Anstey, is an Independent Writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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