The University of the Witwatersrand injects entrepreneurial thinking into doctoral training

Published On: 17 June 2022|

The University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) is introducing a training programme in which doctoral students will, while pursuing their core programme, also undergo rigorous training to inculcate entrepreneurial thinking. Professor Nithaya Chetty (left), Dean of Science at Wits, shared this plan which is in an advanced stage of implementation, to members of Universities South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG) on 9 June.

Professor Chetty, who was one of four guest speakers at RISG’s second meeting for the year, expressed belief that nurturing entrepreneurial thinking in students will benefit all universities with positive impacts for society.

This initiative is essentially a PhD in one’s chosen field of study, combined with a Post-Graduate Diploma in Innovation (PGDip Innovation). In a pilot programme set to take off in 2023/24, enrolled students will register for the PGDip and PhD dual study programme, leading to them attaining a dual qualification by the end of four years of study.

The aim is to instil an entrepreneurial mindset in carefully selected PhD candidates, who will approach their research projects with entrepreneurial thinking from the outset. Another aim is to impart practical skills to doctoral candidates to create more employable graduates. “This is about integrating formal innovation training into mainstream science, not post it,” Professor Chetty says. “This way, PhD candidates will be inspired to think innovatively during their PhD research, rather than after the fact.”  In doing so, Wits will strive to maintain the essence of the university by upholding the highest levels of academic scholarship and cultivating independent and critical thinking in students, and not diluting that, while at the same time inspiring their students to become more innovative.

Wits wants their PhD candidates to approach their research projects with problem-solving in mind. This programme will be deemed a success if graduates visibly translate their research findings into products or services with impact on society, and to create profitable enterprises. Professor Chetty emphasised that “we must be embracing of all academic disciplines including the Humanities, and so we need to measure impact in appropriate ways.”

He says this dual study programme is giving expression to Wits’ Strategic Plan for Innovation, which, among other goals, strives to strengthen the level of attention given to innovation across all faculties, schools and research entities; to integrate innovation and entrepreneurship training into all study programmes — at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels — and to strengthen links with companies, civil society, public sector and other universities in support of innovation.

nurturing entrepreneurial thinking

Recruitment is underway for 2023/24

To that end, Wits will be recruiting students through a stringent interview process to ensure that the programme attracts smart, hard-working students with an ambition to succeed. A total of 40 fully funded students is envisaged from all programmes offered in the institution’s five faculties.  Firmly believing that innovation is not limited to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, and that not all innovation leads to commercialisation, the recruits will also include those from Humanities and Social Sciences.  The curriculum will broaden the scope of innovation to include impact on society.

How the programme came about

After two years of promoting the innovation programme to prospective funders overseas, the proposal attracted the attention of Dr David Fine, a chemistry honours alumnus and product of Wits from 1960 to 1963. A specialist in sniffer technologies for narcotics and explosives, David Fine shot to the spotlight for identifying the explosives used in the bomb that brought down a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. “Wits had engaged Dr Fine to discuss an exchange programme in chemistry with Leeds University — where he completed his PhD — when he took particular interest in our innovation programme. That inspired his donation of US$3million,” Professor Chetty told the members of RISG.

david fine wits 1960

It is from that donation that Wits is funding this programme. The University was also able to establish the Wits Innovation Centre, an integral part of its innovation ecosystem, whose central function will be to oversee the research-led innovation programme and drive innovation and commercialisation of research. The Centre will be headed by a Chair in Innovation and Director reporting to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation (see below).


A product of collaboration with experts from other systems

The PGDip Innovation qualification is a product of collaboration with other global institutions. Professor Chetty says the monthly series of seminars on science, society and innovation involving speakers drawn from across the world, including South Africa, has been very informative and helped shape Wits’ burgeoning new programme for innovation. In developing the programme’s curriculum, Professor Chetty has been working closely with Professor Surya Raghu (see below), a visiting professor at Wits and an Innovator and CEO of Advanced Fluidics based in Maryland in the United States of America.

curriculum PGDip

Not without its fair share of challenges

Wits has struggled with some administrative hurdles, both internal and external to the University. Trying to launch a programme that is multidisciplinary and cross-faculty is a challenge in the university setting as there is a requirement to locate the programme in a particular faculty and even in a particular School. “For now, we have located this in the School of Physics in the Faculty of Science. So, this has the potential of creating a silo effect and could turn students from other faculties away,” Professor Chetty says. “Ideally, we would like the programme to be owned by the Wits Innovation Centre which is central to the University.”

Furthermore, there aren’t any CESM (Categories for Education Subject Matter) categories for Innovation. It is vital that CHE defines this without delay. Professor Chetty believes that when Wits presents their new proposed qualification to CHE for approval it will be clear that they will be requesting new CESM categories for innovation, which will benefit the whole sector.

The Wits’ Dean of Science also hopes that through the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Innovation, they will be able to secure new bursary schemes for this dual study programme. “The fact that the DST has transitioned to the DSI suggests that a case can be made for directed bursary support for this new programme,” Professor Chetty says.

During a brief discussion that ensued on 9 June, the RISG Chairperson, who is also the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga, Professor Thoko Mayekiso, expressed a concern on the mention of Design Thinking for Science in the post-graduate diploma curriculum. She said the title implies that the module is limited to students in hard sciences to the exclusion of those in social sciences. In response, Professor Chetty said the programme also offers an elective aligned with the individual’s specialty area in any field of study across the board.

In wrapping up his presentation to the RISG, Professor Chetty said he looked forward to collaborating with USAf, through its Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE), the Departments of Higher Education and Training and Science and Innovation, as well as the National Research Foundation, on promoting this initiative.

In turn, Professor Mayekiso congratulated Wits for this unique achievement. She said members of RISG looked forward to seeing the programme grow.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communication.