Universities must think more creatively about the employability of their graduates

Published On: 17 June 2022|

The Dean of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Professor Nithaya Chetty (right), says although it is laudable that the South African higher education produces 3000 PhDs, annually, and that Government has set targets to double that output to 6000 by 2025, universities must think long and hard about where those PhDs will be employed.

This is the question that Professor Chetty has been raising for the past two years in making a case for inculcating entrepreneurial thinking in especially PhD graduates.

That thinking has led to Wits developing a Post-graduate Diploma in Innovation (PGDip Innovation), to be offered concurrently with the generic doctoral degree in a pilot set to be launched in 2023/24.

As Professor Chetty narrated the story of that programme to Universities South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG) on 9 June, he expressed belief that nurturing entrepreneurial thinking in students would benefit all universities with positive outcomes for society.

Academic jobs are becoming scarce

Professor Chetty argued that currently, South Africa’s university sector absorbs about 50% of doctoral graduates while the next largest employers are industry and government. The rest are absorbed by science councils, the non-profit sector and into self-employment, respectively.

graduate destination

“It is a fact that traditional academic jobs are becoming scarce, and this is a global phenomenon,” the Dean of Science said, adding that “this requires us, universities, to think more creatively about the employability of our graduates, especially those at the PhD level.”  [He does concede that although he emphasises innovation at doctoral level, this notion may well be applied across all university study levels, as it is already happening under the stewardship of USAf’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education]. He said in the United Kingdom, university programmes absorb even fewer doctoral graduates (at 2%), thus adding pressure on universities there to render their graduates more employable in areas beyond academia.

He added that even more importantly, graduates need to think beyond employability by seeking to create jobs in the economy, themselves, and to solve societal challenges.

Innovation is the way to go

He says there is an implicit assumption that doctoral graduates are inclined to be innovative and are inherently well-placed to solve societal problems. “But are they?” he asks. “They certainly have the potential to be more innovative. However, we need to work on unleashing this potential by deliberately integrating the ideas of innovation into our academic programmes more formally.”

pgdip msc

He further says the university is a great reservoir of potentially viable commercial ideas, yet “we’re not exploiting this potential sufficiently. How do we ignite this potential? The problem is cultural, in the way we think about innovation – ‘this is somebody else’s problem.’ We need to change that mindset,” he says.

Innovation presents a real opportunity for the sector

Professor Chetty reiterates that universities have a responsibility to address the question of graduate employability, with particular focus on graduates from research-led degrees, for which there is not a clear career path outside academia.  “Let us think of the 200,000 learners obtaining a bachelor pass from the national school certificate, year-on-year. We need to create out of them, excellent researchers for the long-term sustainability of our universities.”

While Professor Chetty heralds the Wits programme as presenting a real opportunity to cost-effectively solve societal problems in South Africa, he cautions decision makers in other institutions that not doing this will “call into question the relevance of our university system, especially in the context of a developing economy and a bleak forecast for the future.” He says a higher education system losing relevance will lose societal support in the long term, “with dire consequences”.

For institutions, profits should not be the primary goal of innovation

One piece of advice that Professor Chetty is offering to universities pursuing commercialisation of innovation, is not to use the initiative to primarily make money.  He, however, welcomes the idea of academics and researchers profiting from their innovative products and ideas, provided the pursuit of that objective does not interfere with their university work.

To incentivise academics to be innovative, Professor Chetty encourages institutions to create opportunities for academics to spend time in industries relevant to their research, even if this means supporting them to travel abroad for that exposure. He says by so doing, universities stand to reap reputational benefits, and revenue, over time, as successful alumni begin to donate to the institution.

“Ultimately, our scientists need to push ideas out of science into the business world,” he concludes.

Wits’ initiative is well aligned with the objectives of EDHE – says Dr Norah Clarke

Commenting on the dual qualification programme emerging at the University of the Witwatersrand, the Director of USAf’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, Dr Norah Clarke (left), said this initiative aligns with one of EDHE’s three objectives to support the development of entrepreneurship through teaching, learning and research across the curriculum.

Said Dr Clarke: “Universities are increasingly considering their responses to the changing employment and work landscape against the backdrop of devastating youth unemployment numbers.

“Much consideration is being given to the question of the real value of degrees and other qualifications in this context, seeing that graduates are also at risk of remaining unemployed. Current academic programmes are being re-evaluated and new offerings are being reconsidered to better position graduates for economic participation.”

She gave, as another example in the South African system, an excellent PGDip in Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town, under the leadership of Stuart Hendry, that yields several start-ups annually. She added that a book about the programme will be launched at the EDHE Lekgotla 2022 on 20 July.

In a brief discussion that followed Professor Chetty’s presentation to the RISG, Professor Bernard Nthambeleni (right), member of the RISG and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Venda, wanted to know how institutions can reconcile avoiding making money from commercialising their innovations with “the funding quagmire that we’re facing.” Professor Chetty responded: “The approach we need to take is to prioritise producing graduates who will create employability. Over time, the university will benefit from alumni successes, as those graduates plough back their proceeds into their alma mater.”

The Chairperson of RISG, who is also the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga, Professor Thoko Mayekiso, asked how universities could incentivise academics to become more innovative.  In response, Professor Chetty cited a candidate who was pushing for the commercialisation of his research, whereas the head of his department was concerned about the impact that this would have on his ‘day job’.

“I asked for a performance contract for the individual to ensure that he satisfies his university obligations. Once there are no questions in that regard, he can be allowed to travel to abroad to pursue his ideas, with our blessing. We cannot afford to take chances with candidates who have not proven themselves, but once they have, we need to be flexible.”

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