Universities South Africa (USAf) Media Update
Although the National University Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Baseline Study has not yielded rocket science or brand-new knowledge, the study report does give stakeholders a firm understanding of what is happening within the entrepreneurship space at South Africa's 26 public universities. Key stakeholders who attended the launch of the study report in Johannesburg last Wednesday agreed that the report paves the way for the development of a national policy framework on entrepreneurship in higher education.
Presenting the key findings of this study, Dr Norah Clarke, Director of Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme at Universities South Africa (USAf) said the most paramount finding was that things are happening at every single one of South Africa's 26 universities. Even though the level of entrepreneurial development is not uniform across the board - given the uniqueness of each institution and its context - all universities have some kind of entrepreneurial activity going. Dr Clarke hailed this as a positive finding. The report also notes strong levels of progress achieved in the three years since the EDHE programme was introduced in 2017.
Illustrating this finding further, Dr Clarke said over half (56%) of public universities have shown evidence of institutional or departmental activity in entrepreneurship; 20% of institutions offer entrepreneurship degree programmes, mostly at undergraduate level, even though some activity also exists at post-graduate level; 28% of universities offer short courses in entrepreneurship while another 28% have listed specific student activities (clubs, groups or competitions) taking places within their campuses. Furthermore, the study shows a high incidence of centres of entrepreneurship established across the system and also a high level of community engagement, which shows a significant level of the institutions' embeddedness in their local contexts. However, 12% of institutions do not feature entrepreneurial activity on their websites. "Business schools, though construed a natural home, are also glaringly absent from the universities' entrepreneurship ecosystem," Dr Clarke added.
The study has also uncovered a concerning degree of ambiguity in the definition of the term "entrepreneurship", and in the usage of the term "innovation" across the system. Institutional expectations have been found to be divergent, even within departments of the same institution. In some instances, the baseline study found discrepancies between messages shared on institutional documents or websites and the understanding of staff on actual entrepreneurial practice.
Another finding is the direct correlation between how entrepreneurial activity is positioned within institutions and the visibility, credibility, support and funding levels it enjoys. Taking this finding into consideration, Dr Clarke said it was no coincidence that the launch of this report was taking place on the day that deputy vice-chancellors and other members of executive management from various universities were attending an Executive Leadership training event at the same venue. "All activity gets multiplied once it wins the support of leadership and the change makers in the system who believe that what we're doing adds value. We welcome all of you to this space."
On her overall impression of the study report, Dr Norah Clarke said the findings "have verified what many people have been saying for a while. Now that we have confirmed the issues and the gaps in the system, real work starts now towards addressing those challenges." She said the report does inform the next course of action, which is the development of a national policy framework on entrepreneurship development for South Africa's Higher Education.
Sharing some background to the formal introduction of entrepreneurship in higher education, Dr Diane Parker, Deputy Director General: University Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), said the idea had come up during their review of the Higher Education Act (Act of 1997) in 2015. "There was blood on the floor, initially, as we debated, argued and disagreed with one another." She said the regulators did not reach a consensus about introducing this in legislation, as an additional role of universities. They therefore left it out of the HE Act. "Eventually," she said, "we decided that entrepreneurship was important. But, taking into consideration the core business of a university we also realised that we needed to take care of ethical issues. Should there be boundaries, we wondered. Should we put in place a regulatory process - something creative, while managing the risks for universities? That's when we saw a need for a national framework to regulate this practice."
Dr Parker said thanks to the British Council, who had funded this study, universities and government now had something to work from, in formulating the national policy framework. Whether that framework would be embedded in the Higher Education Act or not, would be revisited in another round of legislative review coming up in 2021. "We will have an opportunity then, to see whether it is fitting to include the national framework in the Act."
Also adding to why the baseline study was important, Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, said due to South Africa's history, "our institutions are not identical. Yet they all have an opportunity to develop an entrepreneurial spirit in their own unique contexts. It is important to base our new programme decisions on empirical evidence. In considering what interventions to put in place, we also need to learn about international best practices - not necessarily to blindly accept practices of other nations but to recognise what has worked elsewhere in deciding our own interventions."
Professor Bawa said while universities must accept that not every student is going to become an entrepreneur, they must instil entrepreneurial thinking in everyone, nonetheless. He said to that end, the baseline report was bringing to the fore, what policies impede the desired progress. "We must also ensure that we do not end up with adverse circumstances on our campuses - where our institutions end up just chasing money - which is not their core purpose. On the other hand, students cannot adopt the entrepreneurial spirit unless their universities are entrepreneurially predisposed. In many respects, this report now opens the flood gates to much bigger activity."
The baseline study, which employed quantitative and qualitative data gathering techniques, entailed surveys, interviews, focus groups and documents analysis. The findings presented therefore paint a picture of a) entrepreneurial activity (i.e. how this is defined) and delivery (key players) at all the 26 universities; b) processes and approaches (strategies, policies) being followed and c) systems (internal support) and processes. The data collected enabled defining, mapping and describing existing practices and analysing the trends and expectations across the board. The report also offers recommendations towards improving future practice.
"Speaking at the launch function, Ms Susana Galvan, Country Director at British Council South Africa, said her organisation's involvement with this project was in keeping with the British Council's purpose of learning about the challenges and opportunities of the countries in which they work and seeing how they can add value. The project was also part of what the British Council was doing in support of education in its broad sense, starting with basic, the training and vocational college sector, higher education, arts and culture and social entrepreneurship.
At the launch event, a panel drawn out of key players from the university sector got to share insights from the baseline study report. This discussion was moderated by Dr Poppet Pillay, Director at the Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Durban University of Technology, in her capacity as Convener of the EDHE Community of Practice for Entrepreneurial Universities.
The members of the panel pointed out the factors they considered important in the report. They also touched on issues which they proposed had to be taken into consideration in formulating a national policy framework. Their inputs ranged from the student-centredness of entrepreneurial practice to the link between students' academic research and innovation and the importance of converting research output into commercial products. Matters around intellectual property (IP) ownership and the potential of IP ownership to frustrate the entrepreneurial spirit in students -- unless this was addressed in the national policy framework -- also came up. Discussions also recognised that some disciplines were more naturally pre-disposed to entrepreneurship than others, examples being health sciences (medicine, pharmacy, physiotherapy, social work), engineering and law. Some panellists therefore emphasised the importance of encouraging entrepreneurship in all disciplines including those that did not seem - at face value - to be lending themselves to entrepreneurship.
Ms Charlene Duncan, Programme Director at the launch event and Director at the University of the Western Cape's Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said the launch of the baseline study report marked the start of an exciting period for South Africa's university sector. "This is the culmination of a dream that Norah, Poppet and I used to speak of, in the early days of the EDHE programme," said Ms Duncan, in her capacity as Co-Convenor of the EDHE Community of Practice for Entrepreneurial Universities. "We could not do justice to the pursuit of EDHE goals if we did not know the state of entrepreneurship at our universities." Now that the baseline report has been published, Ms Duncan encouraged stakeholders to engage with it and bring to the next Entrepreneurship Lekgotla in July, 2020, inputs towards the development of the national entrepreneurship policy in higher education.
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