Over the past decade or so, the debate that takes place mainly within business schools as to whether entrepreneurs are ‘born’ or ‘created’ has been overtaken by the idea that all students from all faculties and from all over the world. all universities can and should benefit from exposure to some form of entrepreneurship education.
The belief is that by giving students the skills and / or the ‘mindset’ (again an area of debate) to become economically active, universities can help cope with the youth unemployment crisis and stagnant economic growth.
In 2006, fresh off a job in a venture capital fund, Anita Nel told a professor at Stellenbosch University that the motto she intended to apply to her new position at the The university’s technology transfer office, Innovus, was “Porsche for professors”.
“I was partly guided by my sense of humor, but he was incredibly upset… What was clear was that, in the hallowed halls of the university, the words ‘money’ and ‘academic research’ , when spoken in the same breath, bordered on blasphemy, ”she told attendees of the fifth Lekgotla of the Education Development Higher Education (EDHE) program, held last week on the Future campus Africa from the University of Pretoria, in a session to discuss how supervisors can help their students benefit from their research. for economic benefit.
Five years later, however, that same professor called Nel to his office at Innovus and said, “Anita, do you remember our discussion? I want my Porsche ”, an opening that Nel interpreted as confirmation of a change, of a growing openness of academics to the notion of commercialization and entrepreneurship.
A change of mentality …
The fact that such a change is taking place is partly reflected in the number of technology transfer offices that have sprung up at universities in South Africa.
This is also reflected in the efforts of the National Department of Higher Education and Training, which has established the EDHE partnership with Universities South Africa (USAf) to ensure that students become more economically active, during and after graduation. .
USAf CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa called EDHE an “exciting intellectual adventure” that has the potential to have significant social and economic impacts on students and the economy in general.
Raising the ante even higher, Professor Thorsten Kliewe, chairman of the Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Committed Universities headquartered in Germany, told the opening session of the second day of Lekgotla that universities that focus more on the third mission (entrepreneurship and engagement) would be the flagship universities in 10 years.
However, despite these lofty aspirations, controversy around the concept of entrepreneurship among academics persists.
As Nel notes, this is in part due to the age-old tension between academic freedom on the one hand and the pressure (especially in the face of dwindling research funding) to rely on industry as a source of support. financial.
There is also an ongoing dispute between the idea of a university as an accrediting authority and its responsibility to produce critical thinkers; or whether academics should be motivated by publications in reputable journals or by solving real world problems.
These questions raise fundamental questions about the (evolving) role of the university in a (rapidly changing) society.
Having survived the opprobrium of traditional Stellenbosch faculty, Nel is now Chief Director of Innovation and Business Development at Stellenbosch University and CEO of US Enterprises (Pty) Ltd, the trading company of the university.
According to the university’s website, she made Innovus one of the leading university technology transfer offices in Africa, established the university’s LaunchLab business incubator, and was instrumental in the Start-up of the University Technology Fund (UTF) which provides funding for new technology startups in South African universities.
Last year, Innovus launched five new technology companies and seven of its companies are now funded by UTF.
Despite these successes, Nel hinted that it was actually more difficult to commercialize the research than people thought – although that was no reason not to try.
One of these challenges is that an academic proof of concept can answer a research question in an academic setting, but rarely presented as a tangible real-world product or prototype with a clear path to an established market. .
Putting this into perspective, Nel told Lekgotla that only 16% of technology transfer offices in the United States, where research commercialization is much more entrenched in the university system, have broken even or made a profit. .
“Often it’s an activity that costs universities money,” she said.
So why do it?
For Nel, the importance lies in “making innovation count”.
“Make innovation important”
“We recognize that research results with commercial value add relevance to a university and its research groups. It is positive for the reputation of the university and potentially brings results where it can benefit society and affect lives.
“Although we don’t always make money, often jobs are created, products are brought to market… sometimes we see huge successes and income can be generated, although it is not always easy. . “
Nel suggested that economic or commercialization results should be built into research designs from the start. To this end, Stellenbosch is experimenting with a “Translation Fellowship Program”, which aims to target postgraduate students at the start of their research journey, to “bring them closer” to the technology transfer office and to teach them how to put a product in the market.
“We want to get them to talk to industry representatives, ask them what the problem this industry is facing and if the student’s idea or solution would appropriately resolve it. “
In this way, the student could not only get a degree, but also too create something with use value, she says.
The idea of commercialization or entrepreneurship as a “complement” to basic or basic research may offer a useful way to better sell the concept to skeptical academics.
But the appreciation of a parallel approach was not evident in the views of Dr Amazigh Dib, private sector coordinator and business manager at the Pan-African University Institute of Water and Energy Sciences. (PAUWES) in Algeria, which concluded a presentation reflecting high levels of confidence in entrepreneurship as a means of solving graduate unemployment and a seemingly pervasive mismatch between industry and academic skills, with the following: “This that university students should understand is not knowledge, but applied knowledge. “
Innovate to have an impact
As the only session participant whose day-to-day work does not focus on facilitating or promoting entrepreneurship or commercialization, it was left to Prof. Nithaya Chetty, Dean of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand ( Wits) to remind everyone of the continuing importance of basic research in a university.
Choosing his words carefully (innovation rather than commercialization – and they are not interchangeable), Chetty said he favored an approach that saw all university faculties pursue basic research programs “unfettered” (by an industrial agenda). or other) and essentially in the sense of open criticism. demand.
However, Chetty conceded that universities can and perhaps even should run “parallel programs” so that all students are exposed to innovative ideas and are challenged to think about ways in which their work could have more impact. impact on society.
Partly in response to Tandokazi Nquma-Moyo, business development manager at the Technology Innovation Agency, who kicked off the session earlier by stating that students should be offered research topics based on industry needs, Chetty said it was “difficult” to force researchers and students in a particular direction, but recognized that it was necessary to make them “understand the importance of innovating in terms of research and of having more ‘impact in society’.
Chetty admitted to worrying about the extent to which researchers in post-apartheid South Africa had been pushed towards applied research and the impact of this policy on academic research.
“I’m worried about this. If the focus is entirely on the application [research] and U.S [all] take inspiration from the industry, we [all] essentially become service universities. I wouldn’t.
He said, while applied research carried out in universities of technology should be valued, “if all universities become centers of applied research, we will ruin our universities”.
Insisting that all research should have a commercial value rather than a social impact risked “driving chasms” and “creating more difficulties,” he said.
Increasingly, there was a need to distinguish between research-led innovation and researcher-led innovation. “I think the greatest attention for us in universities has to be mainly on our doctoral students and to connect basic research in a more innovative way; it is research-driven innovation.
“A big concern that I have as dean is the output of our doctoral students. Last year, we produced 100 doctorates in the faculty of science and across the country universities are driven by a strong impulse to develop more doctoral students. The understanding implicit here… although the connection is not made correctly, is that these graduates will continue to contribute positively to society.
“This bridge [between PhDs and benefits to society] must be stronger and innovation is a key part of this bridge.
By setting their own research agendas [as opposed to relying solely on industry needs], universities were able to foster and support innovation among researchers who were trying to understand problems relevant to society in a very fundamental way – “and in doing so, fund solutions to those problems … That’s what” is innovation ”.
It is clear that further debate on these complex issues is needed – especially since a pilot study commissioned by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Advancing Entrepreneurial Universities in Africa, involving three diverse South African universities, suggested that there is no common definition of an entrepreneurial university in South Africa.
As the study now enters its second phase led by Professor Cecile Nieuwenhuizen, Chair of Entrepreneurship Education of the South African Research Chairs Initiative at the University of Johannesburg, and seeks to involve all stakeholders. remaining public universities, debates on entrepreneurship education and its place in South African universities are likely to intensify.
More information on the 5th Lekgotla 2021 of the Higher Education Entrepreneurship Development Program (EDHE) can be found here.