Proud eight-year-old Sol Plaatje University hosts #SEW2021

Published On: 15 September 2021|

The Northern Cape might be South Arica’s largest province, but it has the sad distinction of also having the lowest level of education among South African youth. So said Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Sol Plaatje University (SPU), Professor Andrew Crouch. He was welcoming participants at the opening ceremony of the fifth Students Entrepreneurship Week in Kimberley, on Tuesday. This year’s theme is #Rebuild. #Againstallodds.

Professor Crouch (above), returned to his birthplace, Kimberley, to head up Sol Plaatje University in April 2020 – just a month after the CoViD-19 pandemic forced universities across the country to make major teaching and learning changes. He said that exposure to entrepreneurship, and the development of an entrepreneurial spirit was of critical importance for the Northern Cape, and Kimberley.

“A recent Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) survey that we took part in showed that for youth in the age group of between 18 and 25, only about 30% had a matric qualification. In that same age group, only 3,0% had post-matric qualifications. It is absolutely shocking!” Professor Crouch told the audience in the hybrid (virtual and in-person) event.

Kimberley turns 150

In his welcome address, he mentioned that “we in Kimberley like to make things sparkle,” adding that Kimberley used to be the diamond mining capital of the country.

“But, at this stage in its development and its life – our town has just celebrated 150 years of diamond mining – both mining and diamonds are in their twilight years. We are seeing the sunset of diamonds. That is why this week is so important: the #SEW2021 programme will concentrate on the development of student entrepreneurs and will address some of the gaps being left by the void created by the end of diamond mining.”

This week, #SEW2021 will examine what is being done at SPU, and at all 26 universities across South Africa, to instil an entrepreneurial campus culture. The aim, the SPU VC said, is to mobilise the national student and graduate resource, to successfully create enterprises and ultimately lead to some sustainable wealth and – more importantly – job creation.

Referring to the HSRC findings, Professor Crouch said unless something drastic was done, it did not bode well for the development of the Northern Cape. “That is why entrepreneurship and innovation is so important; that is why we, as the hosts of #SEW2021, stress that this week is hugely important for this province.” He said student entrepreneurship was one leg that needed to be developed and promoted.

However, he said a second leg – innovation in academia – was also necessary. “We should also encourage our academics to be innovative, to be professionals who instil an entrepreneurial mind set in our students. After all, they are the catalysts and the example that the students use to chart their own career.

“They are the role models for these young minds. It’s important for academia to offer the relevant knowledge, transfer the requisite practical skills and business principles, and, more importantly, provide leadership for these budding young entrepreneurs to be able to develop the skills and their businesses.”

A third leg involved entrepreneurship in universities. “I see SPU as an entrepreneurial and innovative university. In the classical university model, one that is over 500 years old, universities just graduate students with degrees – BAs, Masters or Doctorates.

“In the last 50 years, we’ve seen the development of comprehensive universities offering diplomas and sometimes certificates.” He said SPU was earmarked to be a comprehensive university, adding: “I want to take this university one step further – to be an innovative and entrepreneurial university. You don’t get one without the other,” he said. An innovative university needed to look at education differently, Professor Crouch explained.

Buffet-style modules in a wonderful crisis

The world trend in education, he said, is an unbundling and reassembling process where classical degrees and diplomas are being unbundled into smaller units. Modules can then be taken in a “buffet style” where you choose what is relevant to you, then reassemble those credits and end up with micro credentials.

“That is what the innovative universities are doing: creating a more flexible and more nimble education system that we have seen now with this wonderful crisis.” He said he called the pandemic a wonderful crisis because it had forced quick action on the part of universities and encouraged a new way of thinking for academics.

“We had to make changes very quickly; CoViD-19 has forced us to respond with innovation and entrepreneurship.

“I’m watching this space very carefully – you must remember that in a previous life I was responsible for the introduction of online learning.”

(During his eleven years at the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Crouch served, first, as an Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science before becoming Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic. As Executive Dean, he was instrumental in introducing applications of new pedagogies in the digital sphere, championing the use of innovative educational technologies and the integration of technology into existing teaching and learning programmes across multiple platforms. He spearheaded the establishment of innovative teaching and learning spaces, smart classrooms, e-zones, simulation laboratories and virtual learning spaces, as well as a planned novel centre for educational technologies.)

Poverty and inequality

Professor Crouch noted that poverty and inequality were a scourge in a region like the Northern Cape. These extreme challenges needed to be addressed in an innovative way; solutions needed entrepreneurial treatment.

“I heard this week that South Africa has the highest failure rate among people starting new businesses. That must say something about what we are doing. We must be cognisant of the realities around starting new businesses: you need lots of support; we have to be able to fully commit to it.”

Entrepreneurship and innovation are key at SPU, he said, as is digitisation – explaining that SPU is a digitally enhanced campus, where the digitisation process is (as it should be) natural and barely noticeable.

“We want to be a successful university; we want to promote the kind of innovation and leadership that will make us sustainable going forward.

“We are rooted in such a way that knowledge generated here should be obvious to our communities. But our community engagement happens in a scholarly fashion – I want to be clear that our idea of university engagement is not to run soup kitchens.”

 

Ms Gail Motlhaudi (right), Lecturer in Economic and Management Sciences and Student Entrepreneurship Centre, said that SPU was regarded as ‘the new kid on the block’. “We’ve been around for eight years! We are excited to be on a national platform. We are delighted for the opportunity to show what the new kid on the block can do and are very happy to be hosting both #SEW2021, as well as the central regional intervarsity – at the same time,” she said.

(SPU is also hosting the central regionals of the Intervarsity competition; competing campuses include Central University of Technology — CUT in Bloemfontein; University of Free State; Vaal University of Technology in Vanderbijlpark and North-West University in Potchefstroom)

She said SPU was set to take on several initiatives aimed at encouraging entrepreneurial thinking. “We have so much going on, regardless of how young and new we are! We recently acquired a rapid incubator in Upington, which we are using to extend the footprint of the University.

“The Centre services a number of entrepreneurs. The good thing is that it is also a research platform so academics can tap into the knowledge and data being collected there.”

A few of the incubatees at the Sol Plaatje University Centre for Entrepreneurship and Rapid Incubator could watch the hybrid #SEW2021 national launch event from Upington, yesterday.

Professor Crouch said the Sol Plaatje University Centre for Entrepreneurship and Rapid Incubator was important because “all the lessons learned from that centre will feed into the pedagogy and will be shared with aspiring entrepreneurs. We have already partnered with many industries in the Northern Cape and are hosting the Northern Cape Innovation Forum which we launched in February this year.

“Already over 30 industries and partners are listed. It was established in conjunction with the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Northern Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism. We at SPU promote the development of innovators and entrepreneurs. SPU is all about partnerships,” he concluded.

Don’t waste a crisis

Ms Motlhaudi’s advice to studentpreneurs: “We are going through a pandemic. It has been almost two years and it’s very easy to be discouraged, to say ‘let me retreat.’

““I say you should never waste a good crisis. Take this time out to be innovative, to look at the problems that you are seeing and start seeing them as challenges that you can tap into and turn into opportunities.

“There’ll never be a time like this again. Use this time to innovate, to be creative and to tap into skills you never knew you had. We are all online. There are so many things that we now have access to. Tap into those free online courses, webinars, seminars… use this time to empower yourself, to focus your mind. Do not let it go to waste. Keep showing up. Do not give up on anything.”

Just under 400 individuals are registered to attend this event that continues today, and winds up tomorrow.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa