Strategies for institutionalising entrepreneurship; building an entrepreneurial university

Published On: 6 July 2023|

Sound policies, adequate resources and identifying champions became recurring themes as past recipients of the annual Rising Star Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) and DVC of the Year Awards of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme shared insights into building an entrepreneurial university from scratch.

These DVCs had gathered alongside deans, their deputies and executive directors from South Africa’s public universities in Cape Town from 21 to 22 June for the annual Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) of the EDHE programme. This annual event equips the academy’s senior leadership to lead strategically in developing their institutions into entrepreneurial universities. The workshops tackle entrepreneurship from the perspectives of teaching and learning, research, innovation and commercialisation.

The annual DVC of the Year Awards seek to recognise the DVCs who provide exceptional support backing for entrepreneurship development at their institutions. University communities nominate candidates based on a set of criteria including evidence of advocacy for entrepreneurship, establishing support structures and policies, and visibility in networks that nurture entrepreneurship.

All three professors who made up the panel leading the discussion on Enabling Entrepreneurship through the EDHE DVC Awards and Building an Entrepreneurial University from Scratch, concurred that receiving this recognition became an important motivator in the course of their work.

It starts with building a team

Professor Jesika Singh (right), DVC: Research, Innovation and Partnerships at the University of Limpopo, who won the DVC of the Year Award in 2022, acknowledged her team as foot soldiers on the ground, implementing projects and daily activities.

“As DVCs, our role is largely to enable and support,” she said, adding that the Award was a stamp of approval even for her university.

She said building a team may start with one person, and there was no set formula to follow. At her university, it first took a student in the final year of his studies. Today, both staff and students are involved. Professor Singh observed that students were receptive to these initiatives and often wanted to participate. She said that encourages them as leaders to push, even as they grapple with red tape and other issues at their level.

Noting the impact of entrepreneurship projects on students, she encouraged her peers to keep students in mind as end-users when dealing with matters at the highest decision-making level.

Is my university an entrepreneurial institution?

Professor Singh said this is a question she often ponders as she wonders whether the University of Limpopo is doing enough to create a culture of entrepreneurship across all spectrums. On building an entrepreneurial university from scratch, she pointed to the curriculum, saying having projects was good, but is the curriculum on the right track?

“When we introduced digital innovations, we built that into our curriculum. Our students would probably have a compulsory extra module built into their programmes. Now, I was wondering whether it is something that we can do with entrepreneurship as well, for all students?” She said building an entrepreneurial university requires smart integration across the university spaces of research, teaching and learning, and allowing academics agility in their practices.

Professor Singh implored her fellow leaders to identify low-hanging fruit opportunities that could help promote entrepreneurship at their institutions.

In concluding, she mentioned that including entrepreneurship goals in the Key Performance Index (KPIs) worked for the University of Limpopo. She underlined the importance of academics thinking creatively about ways to incorporate entrepreneurship into their modules.

“It is a breath of fresh air when academics share their ideas,” she said.

Proper governance is vital for innovation

For her part, Professor Sibusiso Moyo (left), DVC: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University, emphasised the importance of having sound policies at institutions that encourage innovative thinking. She linked this to the national White Paper for Science and Technology, saying it almost charges organisations to develop more enabling environments for innovation – something that also applied to universities.

As former DVC: Research at the Durban University of Technology, Professor Moyo was in 2019 credited for making DUT the entrepreneurial institution that it had become, at that time  sourcing some goods and services from its own studentpreneurs.  At the ELW 2023 she reminded the audience that it takes people to drive entrepreneurship and innovation at universities, and this requires the enforcement of proper governance, and human capacity development.

“People are essential,” Professor Moyo said. “Finding champions in your organisation and ensuring that they are well-resourced, have enabling procedures, and that their performance is measured, is key,” she said.

She said Stellenbosch University had embedded societal impact and adding value into their institutional strategy. However, questions still remained on how to do it effectively. “My research portfolio talks about impact, sustainability and embedding the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in our research,” she said.

Regarding the institutionalisation of entrepreneurship, Professor Moyo saw essential vehicles as including a dedicated structure and location for entrepreneurial support; enabling policies; boot camps and training opportunities, and preparation for bids and competitions, saying those boosted the students’ confidence. Curriculum transformation and offering a bouquet of generic programmes was also important. She said having seen graduates with PhDs in entrepreneurship still bewildered by unemployment made her realise the importance of an entrepreneurship programme that offered fundamental skills. It was important that students had a running company upon graduation, as part of the programme output.

“As leaders, we can think about how to collaborate over such a programme in the sector. In comparison, we are a small system. If a group of us could design such a programme with industry partners, we would make a big difference,” she said.

Collaborate with others and measure performance

Professor Moyo acknowledged that running an entrepreneurship programme stemmed from a passion and being excellent at it, “but being good alone is not enough,” she said. Transforming institutions into entrepreneurial universities and innovative ecosystems required a horizontal approach involving people in teaching and learning, in industry and across institutions.

Even more importantly, Professor Moyo emphasised developing institutional metrics or indicators. She requested EDHE programme leaders to help them identify the essential elements to measure when designing entrepreneurship programmes. “While others may deem it unnecessary to measure, we have to account for money invested in programmes and track their sustainability,” she concluded.

The DVC portfolio fast-tracked implementation

Professor Eunice Seekoe (above), former DVC: Teaching, Learning and Community Engagement at the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU) and winner in 2021, of the Rising Star DVC Award, said adopting the EDHE model and articulating why it mattered proved effective at her institution.

Given the high youth unemployment in South Africa, she said it was key to produce graduates who would embody entrepreneurial attributes and contribute to the economy. She made this her portfolio’s strategic goal and key performance indicator. “I prioritised it for my office and that led to the executive buy-in because I was able to talk about it in our meetings,” she said. Subsequently, the university embraced that goal and allocated funds to establish programmes.

“I want to encourage DVCs to take entrepreneurship to a higher level. We should advocate for it everywhere within our spheres of influence,” she said.

She said at SMU, they developed a strategy and a business plan which resided in her office and was cascaded throughout the institution. Additionally, they established a steering committee to oversee activities, which further boosted the entrepreneurial culture across the university and had it integrated into the curriculum.

She added that seeing students with a passion to participate in programmes coming up with innovative business ideas motivated her to stay the course.

To ensure that students received practical knowledge, she educated their trainers on the envisaged outcomes, such as business plans, creating businesses and being linked to a mentor. This equipped the students to pitch their ideas and elevated their confidence.

“Building entrepreneurial universities must receive attention from the DVC level, with active and deliberate support,” she said.

Ms Jayde Barends, Senior Technology Transfer Officer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Chairperson of the EDHE Community of Practice for Economic Activation Offices relayed EDHE’s vision on entrepreneurial universities.

As a moderator of this panel discussion, Ms Barends added that they were looking at strengthening certain vehicles within the curriculum, such as work-integrated-learning, with intent to not solely look at producing successful entrepreneurs but also employable graduates.

“Ultimately, we are trying to create a vibrant higher education,” she said.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant for Universities South Africa.