Entrepreneurial education is touted, in part as the solution, if not the silver bullet, to South Africa’s growing youth unemployment rate and other socio-economic challenges that plague the country. It is within this context that higher education institutions have established or are establishing themselves as entrepreneurial hubs, despite the many limitations they face.
The ongoing narrative is that entrepreneurship can boost economic opportunities in South Africa.
As institutions where knowledge converges and innovation and research thrive, there is a huge and complex responsibility on the higher education sector to find ways to embed entrepreneurship education in strategic decision-making at institutional level.
“A number of higher education practitioners believe that infusing elements of entrepreneurship education into different faculties and curricula can assist in helping graduates become job creators rather than job seekers,” Dr Sershen Naidoo said.
Naidoo was speaking during the last day of activities at the Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA) training event held in Durban from 21-24 March 2022. He is the executive director of the Institute of Natural Resources and a key role player in the establishment of HERESA.
Building and strengthening entrepreneurial education in South Africa’s higher education institutions is one of four focus areas (also called communities of practice) of the European Union-funded HERESA project, established in 2021 to create a network of higher education reform experts in South Africa.
The project, so far, has been supporting primarily higher education institutions that are members of the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) – the network responsible for the project. These include the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the Central University of Technology, Bloemfontein, the Durban University of Technology, Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Venda, and the Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape.
Knowledge exchange between some of the European corporates and universities who are instrumental and strategic partners is a big part of the implementation and operations of this three-year project.
The National University Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Baseline Study 2020 found that 56% of the country’s 26 public universities show evidence of institutional or departmental activity in entrepreneurship.
Naidoo said that it is important to know that several institutions have responded to this call from the government to increase their focus on entrepreneurship education.
“There are very senior academics across the country who are presently looking at how to bring entrepreneurship education into the curriculum,” he said.
But the rate of introduction and quality of entrepreneurial education is still highly skewed, with some universities faring exceptionally well and others still facing stagnation, he added.
To commercialise or not to commercialise?
A key pivotal aspect of entrepreneurship education globally is the commercialisation of technology and intellectual property (IP) originating from universities.
During the HERESA training event held on 24 March, there were various opinions from attendees about the absorption of entrepreneurship in higher education, especially when it relates to commercialising research projects at postgraduate level.
“How many people resisted technology? But at some point, they were forced to learn how to use it,” one attendee said. “And this is the same [with entrepreneurial education]. Some will be on board fast, some will delay. However, students are in need. We need to understand that, whether we like it or not, we will become useless if we do not want to change how we think, learn and unlearn certain things.
“I don’t think universities are aware of their vulnerabilities these days. Because, for every problem in society, we are blamed for producing unemployable graduates, and graduates who cannot create jobs,” the attendee said.
Academics, staff should be trained, too
Professor Keolebogile Motaung, the director of technology transfer and innovation at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) and an award-winning biomedical scientist and entrepreneur, said the commercialisation of a research project needs to be incorporated from the time a student is formulating their research idea. “But a lot of [creators of] projects don’t think about that: you’ve got an idea, proof of concept and a prototype, you stop there, and you graduate,” she said.
On the other hand, there is little to no training for professors and technology transfer offices on how research projects can be commercialised. “Perhaps, with this renewed call for entrepreneurship to form part of higher education curricula, there should be a call where the technology transfer officers are thoroughly trained as well,” Motaung said.
Naidoo affirmed that in his years of working with academics in varying age groups (from 24 to 83 years old), very few are capacitated to help students put together a research proposal that covers commercialisation.
According to Motaung, universities are doing extremely well with getting IPs for their innovation, but the challenge is how to move them to the market. She added that almost all research solves a problem, but after researchers solve the problem, they need to identify the business opportunities, target market as well as relevant partners that can propel the research product into the market.
“We also fail to commercialise because, when we do research, we don’t think of the market analysis. We don’t usually address all these things, but if we can change the approach and make sure that it addresses all the questions, then we’ll be able to start talking about commercialisation,” Motaung said.
Start-up at undergraduate level
Motaung said universities need to encourage commercialisation at the undergraduate level. Using this approach, Durban University of Technology recently created eight start-ups in the faculty of applied sciences. The university trained about 80 undergraduate food technology students in their third year of studies to turn their research projects into start-ups with viable potential for commercialisation.
“The lecturers gave the students a project to come up with an immune booster,” Motaung said. “We then helped them to come up with a business idea and marketing strategy.”
The students came up with various products, but Supporting Undergraduate Research Excellence (SURE) – the unit that was responsible for this programme – was not impressed with the branding and, therefore, roped in third-year students from the faculty of arts to re-brand the products. They called in students from the faculty of accounting, in the same year of study, to cost the products.
Since 2018, DUT has established itself as an entrepreneurial university and, through its Innobiz Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, has to date created and supported the establishment of about 54 start-ups.