Universities will become extinct if they don’t change their roles

Published On: 9 June 2021|

Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching at Stellenbosch University, warned higher education leaders at Universities South Africa’s third Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) in Stellenbosch last week: “A lot of our universities are going to go extinct.”

He was speaking to an audience comprising, in the main, deputy vice-chancellors and executive and other leaders involved in entrepreneurship development at South Africa’s public universities, at an event held under the auspices of USAf’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme.

Professor Ramjugernath (right) said the threat was a lesson learnt from the coronavirus pandemic: “CoVID-19 has taught us that if we don’t change, don’t evolve and if we don’t become innovative and entrepreneurial in the way we go about doing things, we will go extinct. Initially it will happen very slowly, and then it will take place very quickly.”

It was a message he repeated throughout his 45-minute presentation titled The Entrepreneurial University. And his antidote?  Higher education institutions need to evolve – a quality which is a characteristic of all sectors of society — and become entrepreneurial.  And not just by paying lip service in the way many universities have done, by inserting the words “entrepreneurship”, “engaged” or “innovative”” in their strategic plan because they sound nice in that context, Ramjugernath stated. University leaders need to start evolving the mindset of their organisations and make entrepreneurship a major part of their strategy.

This shift must not exclude administrative staff because entrepreneurship is not limited to ideas generated by academics. Anyone within the organisation should be able to come up with a good idea. And that good idea, which improves the organisation’s efficiency and effectiveness, should be implementable.

So, universities’ administrative structures need to become less bureaucratic. It is not entrepreneurial to take a long time to get the simplest thing done in universities, he said.

Professor Ramjugernath, who won the EDHE DVC award for exceptional institutional support for entrepreneurship development in 2020 when he was Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said developing a culture of entrepreneurship is broader than just teaching entrepreneurship. It is about how universities and the higher education sector behave. “It’s about seeing opportunity and taking the opportunity for the benefit of the country. That is what it means to be entrepreneurial,” he said.

Why we must adapt or die

Tertiary education does not guarantee a job. More than 600 000 graduates in South Africa are unemployed. They are among the country’s eight million unemployed people, 73% of whom are under 35, with the worst affected group being young people between the ages of 18 to 25, which has almost 100% unemployment.

One reason for what he referred to as these “astounding numbers” is because universities are training students to be employees, not creators of employment.  

This needs a major shift in the role of universities. Their sole purpose is no longer about producing graduates through teaching and learning, research outputs, and undertaking community outreach. Universities need to be addressing the South African and global challenges of unemployment, poverty, inequality and low economic growth rates.

He threw out a challenge to the workshop’s audience, both physical and online: “Can any one of you, as a leader of a South African university, say that ‘my university is directly addressing these challenges which the country is facing?’ You might do research in unemployment, and develop modules on poverty and economics, but are we directly addressing it? How are we working with governments; how are we working with industry in the private sector and how are we working with civil society to find solutions to ensure the socioeconomic upliftment of the country? All African universities need to see this as their mandate moving forward.”

How universities can become entrepreneurial

Ramjugernath’s main recommendation was that, in the same way universities had created positions of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) Research, DVC Learning and Teaching and DVC Transformation, they needed to create the executive portfolio of DVC Entrepreneurship to ensure the integration of entrepreneurship across all levels of the organisation. “It can’t be something that you slap on onto one of the other executive portfolios,” he said.

Part of the audience comprising, in the main, deputy vice-chancellors of South Africa’s public universities.

Why it is OK for professors to earn more than vice-chancellors

The award-winning executive says the way universities tend to look at entrepreneurship is “outdated” and “false”. They see it as a third stream of income in which they will not invest but are happy that it will bring additionalincome to the university“It doesn’t work like that,” he said.

There needs to be a significant investment which will yield returns “not necessarily only for the university,” he said, “but for the region, and most importantly, for socioeconomic upliftment in the country”. This requires developing models that drive sustainable entrepreneurship, which cannot happen without breaking down the boundaries of universities’ siloed mentality and working in an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary mode.

It also means stopping the exploitation of intellectual property and allowing academic inventors to have significant shareholding in the business they have patented. The idea of the university taking most of the profits is a way to drive down creativity. Universities need to reward great ideas, and one way is monetary.

If this means professors earn more than university leaders, that’s “fantastic”, he said. “If I have 50 professors at this university that earn 10 times more than what I earn, I’ll be glad. I’m doing something right.”

Don’t wait for government

Many a time government does not know what it needs to do, and it is up to universities to have a strong voice in starting “to play a more active, engaged role with government in terms of driving the agenda for the country”. Universities should become epicenters of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in their regions.

The future includes joint appointments and students on campus

Professor Ramjugernath said that, as in health sciences faculties, all faculties need to give status to external partners by allowing practitioners to work with academics. This is a model of an entrepreneurial university.

And as much as online teaching and leaning modules can sometimes provide even better interaction than physical classes, students at the top universities in the world such as MIT and Stanford in the US want to come to campus because it’s an ecosystem where networking takes place. South African universities need to create this same “engagement with like-minded, entrepreneurial individuals”, he said.  If universities are not developing that kind of culture and mindset on their campuses, then students will not see the benefit of being there, and institutions will be sitting with “a box of infrastructure, with no students”.

The role of EDHE and university leaders

He said that EDHE was doing exceptionally well in raising awareness about the importance of entrepreneurship. But advocacy alone is not enough. University leaders need to be willing to accept and engage with entrepreneurship, and implement the ideas presented in the EWL workshop, which was designed to explore how executive leaders can create an entrepreneurial culture on campuses.

University leaders need to stop using lack of money as an excuse for what is known as the innovation chasm, about why ideas do not go develop into sustainable large businesses. Just because someone has a great idea does not mean they know how to run the business arising from it. The answer lies in sharing the practical experience of taking an idea along the value chain, and this can be achieved by joint mentoring between academic, industry, business and government stakeholders.

Instead of competing with one another, higher education institutions should be finding more ways of working together to start making an impact in terms of socioeconomic upliftment.

A changing university is part of evolution

Universities have always evolved, he said.  This concept goes back thousands of years. Institutions used to be about the academic training of privileged individuals, and generalised education. He quoted John Stuart Mill’s inaugural address as rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 1867 to prove the point: “Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.”

Then universities started educating for professions. Now the modern university is about training skilled individuals for the workforce. For the last 20 to 30 years, the trend has been to become a research-intensive university. This has created some bad practices, he said, of pushing for quantity rather than quality of research, of being driven by a subsidy formula, and of “being productive for the sake of being productive and not really about what is of benefit to society”.

In this latest evolution, universities must start seeing their role not just as producers of South Africa’s human capacities, but also as playing an integral part in addressing its challenges. And the only way to do that, said the professor, is “to start to become more engaged, more innovative and more entrepreneurial”.

ELW 2021 was intended to facilitate a shared understanding among DVCs and other executive university leaders, on the characteristics of entrepreneurial universities in the South African context; to equip and strengthen the DVCs to promote entrepreneurship at their universities and engage in institutional entrepreneurship policy development work as relevant to their contexts. The workshop was also aimed at instilling in DVCs, a clear understanding of their role as executive leaders at their institutions and, ultimately, to increase the number of universities with entrepreneurship development policies.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.