If SA rates entrepreneurship a top career choice, then we have the potential to do better

Universities do not necessarily need separate courses on enterprise and entrepreneurship. Instead, entrepreneurship should be a lens through which we look at all education and the world of work. These were the views of a British expert who works internationally in the field of entrepreneurship development. She expressed them at last week's Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2020.

Ms Ceri Nursaw, the Chief Executive of the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE), a government-run entrepreneurship facility in Britain, said, in this regard, she agreed with Mr Baraka Mthunga, who had addressed the conference from Tanzania. Both speakers were sharing a platform during the Lekgotla's session on Developing Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies on Tuesday, 15 September.

Ms Ceri Nursaw
In South Africa, entrepreneurship is regarded very highly – something that opens up opportunities for South Africans, Ms Ceri Nursaw, Chief Executive at Britain's NCEE, told the Lekgotla audience last week.

Nursaw's organisation, NCEE, is based in the United Kingdom, has an office in China, and also operates in north Africa and South East Asia. Yet her presentation was not confined to perspectives foreign to South Africa. In her presentation, titled Deep Embeddedness, Benchmarking and Leadership in Entrepreneurship Development, she used recent data from Global Entrepreneurship Monitor to share insights about entrepreneurship in South Africa. Global Entrepreneurship Monitor is a UK-based consortium linked to academic institutions in various countries, including South Africa.

How South Africa rates in terms of entrepreneurial attitudes

Looking at perceived opportunities, that is, the perceptions of whether there were good opportunities to start a business, South Africa scored higher than the global average. So too did South Africans' perceptions on their own capabilities (i.e. the right skills) to start a business. However, intentions to actually start a business are low. South Africans display a higher rate of fear of failure than the global average.

The good news was that within South African culture, enterprise and entrepreneurship commands a very high status and is seen as a really good career choice. "This isn't a natural state for many countries and it's a significant opportunity for South Africa," said Nursaw.

She cited the example of the Middle East where entrepreneurship rates "really, really low" as a good career choice. If you are aspirational and want to do well, you work for government although there is an increasing concern that this is not sustainable. With the demand for oil diminishing, "the way for the economy to survive and thrive needs to be through entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity. So we've been working with businesses, and with education, to try and share the fact that entrepreneurialism is seen as a good career choice," she said.

Framework factors that inhibit entrepreneurship in South Africa

Entrepreneurship does not depend only on attitudes and behaviours, Nursaw went on to say. It is also about the framework conditions that entrepreneurs develop. She said the UK ranked fourth in the world in terms of entrepreneurship. "So, in many ways we've put the framework and the conditions in place to help mitigate some of these behaviours and attitudes. But increasingly, we need to work further on those values and beliefs," she said.

In South Africa, red tape and bureaucracy, and insufficient government support affected people starting businesses. Easier to control and do something about, though, is the need for entrepreneurial education, both at secondary and post-secondary levels.

The UK had invested a lot in physical infrastructure and the entry into start-up businesses. However, the country had scored less points on investment in entrepreneurial education. This meant both the UK and South Africa could make a real difference by embedding entrepreneurial behaviour.

Just when the UK thought it had got it right...

The British government started the NCEE nearly 17 years ago "and you'd have thought by now we should have maybe achieved our objective," said Nursaw. In some ways they have:

  • 60% of universities have entrepreneurial incubators;
  • 84% have enterprise awareness events; and
  • 65% offer start-up funds for students/graduates.

She said at one stage they had thought they had completed their task: "We've got enterprise units, we've got incubation centers, we're fourth in the world in terms of entrepreneurship. We've developed staff, we're engaging communities, we're targeting our programmes at different groups of the community."

But they got distracted. Enterprise and entrepreneurialism shifted in focus and other stats show that only 44% of universities have an enterprise policy embedded within their wider institutional strategy. Training and professional development have decreased from nearly 80% in 2013 to 48% in 2018. Working with communities has pulled back by nearly half. "So that actually does show that we've taken our eye off the ball in some areas, and embeddedness did not happen in the way we wanted it to happen," she said.

How to ensure entrepreneurialism becomes part of people's behaviour

She said there are four main ways to do this:

  • Start with the leaders - entrepreneurial behaviors and attitudes have to be embedded from the top;
  • All activities need to be continually assessed and benchmarked to ensure best practice;
  • Enterprise and entrepreneurship has to be built into all learning and teaching; and
  • It has to become part of government and regulatory practice.

How to drive change in entrepreneurialism

One of the things the NCEE has learned is that embedding entrepreneurial behaviour "is about more than a group of committed individuals trying to drive through change. All leaders in higher education need to understand the importance of entrepreneurial thinking, and need to recognise it as a skill for all."

The NCEE has about 60 measures to demonstrate how a university is approaching enterprise and entrepreneurship and, in this capacity, has trained senior leaders in most of UK's higher education institutions.

"Finally, we have to change it for our students,'' she said. "Moving into a world in which most of the jobs they will have in the future have not been created yet, they're likely to work for varying careers, be self employed at some point, and continually take on new skills. We have to embed enterprise and entrepreneurship in everything that we do."

Importantly, learning about being entrepreneurial is not a privilege or for a select few. ''We have to put it in the curriculum, so that all students understand it can be for them.'' And this must be across all subject disciplines.

How to become an entrepreneur while still a student

Prof Jesika Singh, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Partnerships at the University of Limpopo, who chaired the emerging economies session, asked Nursaw about how students could become entrepreneurs.

The answer, said Nursaw, was for institutions to have incubator facilities so students have community support. Equally important, however, "is creating a mindset that this isn't unusual; that you can do it; it is part and parcel of how you will need to be in the future."

She said it is not enough to support students who have identified a business opportunity. It is essential to extend the support by creating entrepreneurial culture within institutions.

The EDHE Lekgotla, an annual platform for exchanging best practices and thought leadership, has become a premium event on the EDHE annual calendar. The EDHE programme is one of Universities South Africa's flagship projects funded largely from the Department of Higher Education and Training's University Capacity Development Programme.

EDHE Lekgotla 2020 attracted 1221 attendees from South Africa, other African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania, as well as Europe and the US.

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

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