The university as an incubator versus the university with an incubator

Published On: 21 October 2021|

Higher education institutions need to evolve from merely being places of teaching, learning and research to drivers of innovation and entrepreneurship. With nearly nine million South Africans currently unemployed and 73 percent of these being below the age of 35, the need to drive entrepreneurship is more urgent than ever.

“Universities are training students to be employees and not creators of employment,” said Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching at Stellenbosch University.

At Universities South Africa’s recent 2nd Higher Education Conference, Professor Deresh Ramjugernath (left) was speaking within the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education breakaway session, on the topic: The university with an incubator, or the university as an incubator? Implications for university leaders.

“How do we take institutions of higher education forward in terms of being real knowledge producers but obviously converting that knowledge as well? How do they start to have a socio-economic impact in terms of delivering on the real challenges which the country currently faces?” he asked.

It is imperative, he maintains, that the university itself is an incubator rather than hosting one within the institution, suggesting that universities have to re-examine their purpose.

“In the past we’ve seen universities as the producers of research and graduate and postgraduate students with some community outreach. But times have changed and this is really about being able to directly address the kind of socio-economic challenges that the country is facing. As well as massive unemployment rates and poverty, there’s low sustained economic growth and inequality.”

Universities need to be a lot broader when it comes to their role and their purpose; they’ve got to become more innovative, more engaged and more entrepreneurial.

“The latest figures are that almost 800 000 graduates from tertiary institutions are seeking employment or are unemployed. This is where university leadership is going to have to drive an agenda so that we work towards a more conducive ecosystem to nurture the critical skill sets and mindsets so that graduates start being employment creators, as opposed to being job seekers,” he said.

“We need to embed and instil qualities that are required by any person or organisation that is serious about innovation and entrepreneurship, not only in our students, but our staff as well. These include total self-belief, self-motivation, the ability to rebound, determination to succeed, being driven and focused as well as having the ability to make things happen. And, you know, the bottom-line, passion, passion, passion!

“Leadership also needs to realise that universities cannot work in isolation. Gone are the days of the ‘ivory tower mentality’ that we had in the higher education system. The university should strive to become the epicentre of an entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem that includes business, public administration and civil society.

So what makes an ‘entrepreneurial institution’?

“It is so much broader than just having an entrepreneurial incubator on the campus. It goes to the entire mindset of the leadership and the governance of the institution. It talks about the initiatives that you have in terms of capacity development and driving an entrepreneurial agenda. You have to be innovative with the right kind of incentives in place.

“It is about the entire development of entrepreneurship in learning and teaching; not just in terms of lecturing about entrepreneurship but about practical entrepreneurship and how you build that into the curriculum.”

Ramjugernath listed the six key elements of an entrepreneurial university:

Leadership and governance
Entrepreneurship must be a major part of the institution’s strategy and should form an executive portfolio for innovation and entrepreneurship. There needs to be coordination and integration across the institution, with the institution also driving the entrepreneurship agenda for the region.

Organisational and human capacity and incentives
Funding and resources have to be channelled for entrepreneurship with a sustainable financial model for entrepreneurship support. Silos have to be broken down to build interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary engagement. There has to be staff development in entrepreneurship, incentives and rewards for entrepreneurial behaviour and status and recognition given to external partners.

Development of entrepreneurship in teaching and learning
There has to be an entrepreneurial approach to teaching and learning with entrepreneurial behaviour supported by the institution. Research results must yield products and services solving societal problems as identified in the local, regional or national contexts.

Development of a culture of entrepreneurship
The awareness and importance of entrepreneurship must be raised and individuals actively encouraged to become entrepreneurs. Opportunities to experience entrepreneurship have to be provided with mentoring by academic and industry personnel. There should also be access to financing.

Stakeholder relationships and strategic partnerships
There needs to be a commitment to collaboration and knowledge exchange with industry, society and the public sector with partnerships and relationships formed with a wide range of stakeholders. There must be strong relationships developed with incubators, science parks and initiatives related to innovation and entrepreneurship.

This is a key aspect of entrepreneurship strategy with international mobility of staff and students and a drive to attract international and entrepreneurial staff. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel; we want to ensure that the best practices, with regards to entrepreneurship and engagement, are brought to the institution.

Session chair, Dr Engela van Staden, Vice-Rector: Academic at the University of the Free State, asked Professor Ramjugernath where funding would come from.

“We are a small a country with too few higher education institutions that are competing with each other,” explained the professor. “The big challenge is that we are competing for the same pie. And so, as a result of that, it breeds a competitive behaviour and we have to rid ourselves of that.

“Together we have to build relationships with industry, with business and with civil society. We’re talking about engagement with institutions on a global scale. We will have to start through partnerships and, through critical mass, build the kind of networks that will enable us to enlarge our resources to be able to tackle this enormous challenge that we have within the country.

“It’s about the mindset of university leadership. I think when university leadership is very insular and looks at the organisation as just an organisation, and about what the resources are within the organisation, instead of looking at how to leverage in terms of building partnerships and engagement across the sector, that’s when you have a serious problem.

“The mindset needs to shift and, fortunately, we now have a lot of university leaders that are starting to think along those lines. That was not the reality five or 10 years ago when people were very insular and only concerned with their own institution rather than focusing on the role that it plays in the entire higher education sector.”

In conclusion, Ramjugernath said, institutions of higher learning need to work with all stakeholders in the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem for the best interests of the nation and its citizens. University executives are critical for the creation of an entrepreneurial university and a culture of entrepreneurship.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.