2 - 4 November 2020 | Hosted by the University of the Free State

The UFS is set on a path to become an entrepreneurial university

Sakhumzi Dukwe

During one of the #SEW2020 sessions dedicated to the University of the Free State (UFS) on Monday, Mr Sakhumzi Dukwe (SD, left), a Master of Commerce in Entrepreneurship student at Nelson Mandela University and a proven studentpreneur himself, interviewed Dr Engela Van Staden, (EVS, right) Vice Rector: Academic, on the University's approach to entrepreneurship development. He also quizzed her on the future of the EDHE programme.

Dr Engela van Staden

SD: Dr Van Staden, you are a champion of entrepreneurship. How does your university, the University of the Free State, align itself with the national agenda for student entrepreneurship?

EVS: We totally support the view of Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) and their Student Entrepreneurship Week (SEW) view of where we want to take students in terms of entrepreneurship. But the University of the Free State has a very unique approach. We ask our academics: How do you bring entrepreneurship and innovation together, but also support your students to excel in their own business-relevant ideas?

So, we groom our students from final year undergraduate studies to honours, into post-graduate programmes, where they not only have to research their business idea, but do it in their discipline or field of study. That means our students are supported with their business idea and the sourcing of funding while working towards a post-graduate diploma or a Master's degree.

At UFS, we focus not only on how to establish a business, but also intensify research into those special areas. That's how we bring the innovation and entrepreneurial concept together.

SD: As studentpreneurs we have a lot of challenges... What are the notable challenges experienced by the UFS with accelerating student entrepreneurship?

EVS: Of course we would like to reach a broader group of students – at this time we are only focusing on and assisting our final-year and honours students.

I have a dream: that we take our professional programmes and help create the next manager of MediCross, of Dischem. There are so many large successful companies and we produce engineers, lawyers, medical doctors, optometrists. All of them could bring together their discipline skills and their professional skills with a business idea and create competition for the big parastatals out there. That is a dream.

Secondly, we link in employability with entrepreneurship. We have LinkedIn platforms where we assist final year students create e-portfolios so they can market themselves on LinkedIn. We also help them develop a business plan if their choice is to go out into the market and be a job creator. There's going to be a four-credit module as an elective where students can prepare themselves for when they leave the university.

All final years have anxiety. What am I going to do now? How am I going to get a job? What do I do? How do I market myself? So we are bringing entrepreneurship and employability together because those are two of our greatest attributes. We also want to focus on and engage with Enactus, one of our flagship programmes. We engage with them and assist them to get us into the market to help our students to promote themselves.

SD: Will the UFS embark on a progamme to re-conceptualise itself as an entrepreneurial university -- and build in that ethos, that culture, that we are breeding incredible businessmen and women who are going to shake and disrupt the local and global market?

EVS: I think so. We are already on that path. Under the leadership of our Vice Chancellor and Rector, Professor Francis Petersen, one of our focuses and mechanisms is to establish advisory boards. These boards bring together a collective of people with different skills and expertise, specifically within the industry. That expertise that comes into the university, and into academia, advises not only on what is needed in a job market in that industry, but also on what it is to be innovative and how to bring that into your curriculum so that when your graduates leave university and enter employment, they are job-ready.

That also gives an indication of new regulations; of what is happening in the industry; where we can gain sponsorships; where we are up to date with what is happening in the industry. We are not an island. The partnerships we want to create through the quadro helix with government and with funders like the SETAs is very much on our agenda.

We have introduced a short learning programme and established the Phakamisa Academy where our short-term programmes have to be innovative, on the spot, in the work place, for professional development, for continuous development and for life long development. So that academy is actually putting all our short learning programmes into online provisioning because we were a little caught off guard with CoVID. But, as with all other universities, we reacted to that and put our programmes - as a third stream income opportunity - into online programmes.

Furthermore, our research is most innovative and we are following the innovation value chain by creating all our research ideas into possible downstream spin-off companies.

SD: What can we do to further develop the EDHE programme?

ESV: This is actually a dream come true. I worked with Dr Norah Clarke from 2012 when this programme was born – on Madiba Day, 18 July 2012. Since then it has come a long way and the projects and processes that have been implemented have made us so proud.

What next? I believe the lockdown, and the way the universities have reacted towards the remote online emergency teaching, is an indication that they can turn themselves around to become entrepreneurial universities. That is the next actual intensive project that we need to embark on.

I think the universities are ready - even though it must be said that not all of our universities are on the same wavelength.

Alongside Dr Van Staden, the conference also heard how the UFS supports contracts and innovation and how senior academics guide students to turn their research into innovation and commercial products. Watch this space as we continue to report over the next couple of weeks, on what transpired further at #SEW2020 concerning other participating institutions.

Charmain Naidoo is a freelance writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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