What it means to be an entrepreneurial institution

Published On: 18 March 2022|

Nearly R800 million rand – which has benefited more than 22 000 students and helped 6 000 postgraduate students pay their tuition fees – was raised by Universities South Africa (USAf) in the past 19 months.

This was the good news shared by Dr. Linda Meyer (right), Director – Operations and Sector Support at USAf which represents 26 of South Africa’s public universities.

However, she said that universities can no longer depend on historical revenue streams and resources and need to look to new ways of raising money in order to become self-reliant.

Dr. Meyer was addressing public universities’ executive leadership at their two-day Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) that was hosted by Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme.

Held annually and now in its 4th iteration, the purpose of the ELW is to increase the number of institutions positioned as entrepreneurial universities and provide an opportunity for deputy vice-chancellors, in particular, as well as executive directors and directors in entrepreneurship development, to engage on entrepreneurship at universities, specifically as it relates to university strategy and policy. This annual empowerment exercice is sponsored by the British Council as part of its support to growing entrepreneurial universities in the South African ecosystem.

“In advancing an enabling ecosystem of entrepreneurial development in the framework of an entrepreneurial university, it is imperative that we start reflecting critically on what it means to be an entrepreneur and what it means to be an entrepreneurial institution,” Dr Meyer said as she welcomed the senior executives to Day Two of their workshop.

She stated that buy-in from the leadership at universities is vital to ensure that the new reality is not just a pipedream: “If we don’t have that, we will just cage old conversations in a new language as we move forward but the reality is that we won’t invest in the necessary changes that need to happen for us to be sustainable,” she emphasised.

Budget cuts necessitate more innovative, collaborative revenue generation

“Education budget cuts mean that it is imperative that we start commercialising our research endeavours as a valuable third stream income. For the first time in 2019, we saw that investment in research by the public sector exceeded that of the private sector in South Africa. This does not bode well for us because universities are reliant on research activities.

The work that EDHE does is not just about creating student entrepreneurships or changing the mindsets of university leaders but also to co-construct and co-create a future that will enable universities to be viable.”

True and meaningful innovation and change is crucial for success.

“Some universities and institutions of higher learning have more constraints than others and this is not going to change overnight,” she explained. “We sit with many historic legacies where we still have discrimination around the qualifications that are produced. And we need to understand that these deep prejudices also carried forward when we speak about commercialisation and research commercialisation. Often the private sector will go to (the best known) research institutions and not afford other institutions an opportunity. More work needs to be done to ensure that scientists at all institutions are supported adequately.”

Dr. Meyer reflected on the many opportunities that do exist.

“The Johnson & Johnson CoVID-19 vaccine is being manufactured in South Africa for the first time. We are grateful that our country is being recognised for the skillsets and the contribution that we can make, not only to the larger economy, but also to our social economic responsibility. As we walk this journey of the commercialisation of research, we need to ensure that there is the necessary buy-in and resourcing. We need to create a collaborative, coherent and integrated roadmap that will guide us on this journey.”

Dr. Meyer stressed that those institutions who have resources work with other less fortunate institutions that are not as financially secure.

“The entire innovation of the system requires that we support each other and that we acknowledge what our deficiencies and our points of excellence are in the value chain of changing the current narrative. The work we do is not only imperative for today but also for our future and where we are going as the intellectual capital hub of future generations.”

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