University leaders speak out on developing entrepreneurial thinking among undergraduates

Published On: 6 July 2023|

If universities want to promote innovation at undergraduate level, they too need to be innovative and break away from traditional approaches of teaching and learning.

This was the overriding message of the panellists who spoke on How might innovation be encouraged at the undergraduate level and across disciplines, at the5th Executive Leadership Workshop of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, that recently concluded in Cape Town.

EDHE, a Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) initiative, is administered by Universities South Africa (USAf), the umbrella body of South Africa’s 26 public universities. Twenty-four of them attended the workshop.

The panellists at this session were three deputy vice-chancellors (DVCs) and one deputy dean.  All three stressed fresh and new thinking as the way to encourage the same in their students.

Creative learning is not limited to lecture halls and incubators

Professor Deresh Ramjugernath (right), DVC: Teaching and Learning at Stellenbosch University (SU), went so far as to say that all too often, education institutions “destroy a creative kind of thinking, an innovative way of thinking”.

He proposed that institutions look at the entire “learning journey that students will undertake at university”, which has three components:

  • the traditional formal curriculum with its programme qualification mix;
  • the extracurricular activities of facilities such as incubators; and
  • the co-curriculum with its experiential learning space.

Professor Ramjugernath said by stepping into the teaching and learning space from research, innovation, and commercialisation – positions he previously held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) –he has seen the full spectrum of how teaching and learning takes place at universities.

He said learning that develops a mindset and culture of innovation and entrepreneurship does not take place in a classroom where it is instructor driven. “It takes place because you engage, you experience, you network, you collaborate,” he said. The onus was on universities to “build this learning’’, he said, not only through infusing it into the formal curriculum but through students’ lived experience in the co-curriculum space.

“The strong focus is on developing fundamental literacies, competencies, skills, attributes, and values,” said Professor Ramjugernath.

He said assessing the qualities of very successful entrepreneurs reveals that they continuously reflect, explore, and engage in abstract and concrete thinking. “They’re very action-orientated, very much opportunities-focused, resilient, intellectual but humble, courageous. They understand issues around VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), know how to design and to track their learnings, and to really adapt. These are the kinds of competencies and skills we must inculcate within our students.”

Some programmes do that very well, he said, but they are not evident across the entire university. His message was therefore: “Let’s not just think about the traditional way in which we are embedding a mindset in the culture of innovation entrepreneurship. Let’s also utilise the co-curriculum and the experiential learning space, which in many of our universities is not fully utilised, to develop the so-called softer skills which are important for innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Change also needs to come from the top

Professor Sandile Songca (left), DVC: Teaching and Learning at UKZN also spoke of the need to reassess a way of thinking. He said even though higher education is seen as the pinnacle of producing entrepreneurs and preparing youth to contribute to the economy, now, the university itself is starting to question its own model: ‘’what it can achieve and what it is failing to achieve.

‘’As we see graduates joining the unemployment line, we’re starting to say, ‘hey, wait a minute’. Maybe the model of what a university is to South Africa, and to Africa, needs to be reviewed,’’ said Professor Songca.

For the university to produce a different product, the model needed to be changed at government level. The state’s higher education subsidy system incentivises certain types of activities but not innovation or even community engagement. “So can we continue to use the same tool to get different products from it?” said Professor Songca.

He said universities are implementing curriculum transformation. Project-based learning exposes youth to real problems, which can be solved through commercialisation and, by so doing, affects social change and transformation. “That’s what we’re doing. And to different degrees we are succeeding. But I think the elephant in the room remains the lack of change at the macro level.”

A successful case study for undergraduates

Professor Keo Motaung (above), Acting DVC: Research, Innovation and Engagement at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), presented a case study of innovation at undergraduate level that has a measurable impact.

It started with a project for third-year somatology and biotechnology students in the faculties of Applied Sciences and Health Sciences who had to create a product to treat eczema. Similarly, food technology students had to produce an immune booster supplement. Both involved creating a company.

This year Professor Motaung adapted the design thinking model to launch what she referred to as an MIT, or a multi intertrust disciplinary programme, of three to four months’ duration. Students from different disciplines were put into groups of five so they could learn from one another. So, food technology students learnt about branding and accounting students learnt about providing a service in biotechnology. “Marketing students started doing social media and TikTok for the products,” she said.

The students started to take ownership of the project because they knew it was not just about getting marks and graduating, but that “they could turn those assignments into a startup,’’ she said.

‘’These are first-year students who are excited because they own a registered company, and they are pitching for capital investment. Some even published articles about the project.

‘’So, you’ve running a company. You’re not going to look for a job. You are set for life, you’re going to employ, you’re going to contribute to the social economy of KwaZulu-Natal,’’ said Professor Motaung.

One potential drawback is the expense of seed funding but some of the companies are already making money.

‘’I can say ‘We at DUT, did it’. I’m sharing with you that it can work,” she said.

Guidelines for creating innovation

Professor Vanessa Steenkamp (left), Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Health Sciences, said developing an innovative society started with education, which was ultimately the reason they were all gathered at the EDHE workshop.

Changing society started with changing students to capacitate communities, but this could be achieved only with the buy-in of the university. “It needs to also be part of the culture of the university. And for that to happen, it needs to be part of its vision, a core strategic goal,” she said.

It also needs to be across all faculties. “Being innovative is definitely interdisciplinary,” she said.

She listed other key factors needed to motivate innovation in undergraduate students from different fields, and which would foster creativity, curiosity and an entrepreneurial mindset. These factors included:

  • Creating an innovation-friendly physical environment that encourages exploration;
  • Setting up interdisciplinary endeavours that look at problem-based learning, such as the global One Health project adopted at UP, which integrates human, animal and environmental health. “We want people to be critical thinkers, we want them also to be lifelong learners. And these are the type of things that will stimulate that”;
  • Providing mentorship and guidance. “We can’t just expect students to be able to be innovative if they’re not taught how to do that. So, we need to connect students with mentors who have expertise in innovation, and entrepreneurship’’;
  • Fostering a culture of risk-taking as well as learning from failure. She cited a credited journal specialising in negative results from research in order to suggest possible solutions;
  • Facilitating networking and exposure in industry;
  • Introducing credited internships “where students are evaluated in industry, by industry’’:
  • Incorporating innovation and entrepreneurial modules into the curriculum, such as introducing students to technologies such as virtual reality;
  • Sourcing funding to support these initiatives;
  • Encouraging participation in innovation-focused extramural activities, such as SIMUPWars at UP. This is a competition that tests the clinical performance of teams of students from different healthcare faculties and departments. “They have to be from different faculties or departments, because that is the real-life situation. You do not heal a patient on your own. You need the nurse, you need the physio, and so on. And that’s how they’ve learned to respect and appreciate each other more as well’’; and
  • Celebrating and showcasing student innovation and providing continuous support and follow-up. ‘’Being prepared to look at what should be changed is another way of being innovative as well,” said Professor Steenkamp.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.