‘Being an entrepreneurial university is both imperative and urgent’

Universities in Africa and Australia are now expected to have an entrepreneurial focus – but what does entrepreneurial research, education and engagement look like?

This was the key question speakers grappled with in an AAUN Forum session on Global Entrepreneurial Universities: Insights from the AAUN Network held at Curtin University on September 4.

Introducing the session, Dr Annette McLaren, Director, Strategic Projects, Western Sydney University, said there was a growing expectation globally for universities to be entrepreneurial – reflecting innovation, knowledge production, translation, tech transfer and commercialisation.

“We’ve seen recently in Australia this call to an entrepreneurial focus. What we haven’t seen an increase in funding to achieve it. So, the challenge is to deliver what we need to internationally – but also to deliver it in a way that is cost neutral.”

Prof Margaret Chitiga-Mabugu, Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of Pretoria, said that “Since the 1990s, and even as recently as 2017, we were being advised not to be an entrepreneurial university because we would lose our independence or our ability to critique society.

“Now, being an entrepreneurial university is seen not only as imperative but also urgent.”

The reasons for this shift were clear, she said, and included the need for economic growth and job creation (critical in South Africa, for example, where youth unemployment is 60 per cent); bringing income to universities in the context of dwindling resources; increasing community engagement and societal impact; and fostering skills’ development and lifelong learning.

Prof Chitiga-Mabugu said to become an entrepreneurial university UP had conscientised people to embrace the new paradigm; encouraged an entrepreneurial mindset among individuals and scholars; and supported the commercialisation of knowledge and technology transfer.

She also said there was a role for universities to provide critical support services for entrepreneurship, change culture and society to become more entrepreneurial, and contribute to the revitalisation of townships.

“We have several faculties in the University of Pretoria talking about this whole transdisciplinary idea and which input into entrepreneurial efforts in the university.

“For example, in the township of Mamelodi where UP has a campus we all galvanise and come together to assist in its entrepreneurial activities.”

Prof Chitiga-Mabugu noted a variety of UP initiatives which aided entrepreneurship including: an online model called University 101 which had attracted thousands of participants; a program which allowed students to use UP labs to develop their ideas; and scholarships for innovation “where we partner, or want to partner, with others to provide scholarships as well as set up assistance to those needing to be enterprise ready”.

Prof Xiaotian Zhang, Associate DVC Global at Curtin University, said the role of higher education institutions had “forever changed” with universities now being the critical element and driving force of the entrepreneurship ecosystem locally, regionally and globally.

“Entrepreneurship is and should be the vertical that drives our collaboration and engagement”, he said.

Inspiration could be drawn from successful entrepreneurship hubs in Berlin, London and even tiny countries like Finland and Estonia, whose high-performing, high-equity education systems meant they’d become some of the most innovative and entrepreneurial places on the planet.

“The universities there played a crucial role,” he said, “because everything they did as an entrepreneurial ecosystem was through young people and the engagement of university.

“Now, in school, they’re teaching children seven years old the language of technology, which is coding. Already, 12 years ago, all students in the schools in Estonia were learning two languages, a foreign language and the language of technology.”

Prof Xiaotian Zhang, said he believed there was an opportunity for AAUN to make entrepreneurship “the vertical that drives our innovation in teaching, learning, research and social engagement”.

Partnership was a key word, he added – and through partnerships making a difference for people and planet.

“I want to see the flows not only of student and staff exchange, or business delegations. I want to see the flow of startups, new business ventures, information, and even venture capital, so we can really celebrate the next generation of growth together.”

Dr Aldo Stroebel, DVC Research at the University of Mpumalanga (UM), said that, from the outset, his relatively new university had endeavoured to create opportunities for sustainable development through innovation – an approach that lent itself “very directly and very aptly” to the vision of the AAUN.

“For a new university like UM, we were intentional from the start to be entrepreneurial – so in all our processes and operations, the academic project, the research, our partnership strategy and specialty engagement.”

But what, he asked, is a globally entrepreneurial university? And how do you define it? Is it building a cohort and bringing educational systems to bear that are useful and that really can take a person forward in life? Or do you view entrepreneurship as just this notion of commercialisation or business development?

From the ’90s, he said, the understanding of entrepreneurship had usually been linked to universities of technology because the understanding was that you must make something for the market.

Now, there were many examples at universities of centres for entrepreneurship or incubation centres or even global processes like Enactus where social responsibility is the basis of student participation to make the world better, to increase participation, and to advance engagement.

Entrepreneurship could therefore be seen as the strengthening of the nature of important organisations such as universities to make impact. And impact was not just teaching students to be business oriented or having a component related to employability or job creation but rather the whole innovation cycle system of the university.

“We must move away from this notion of entrepreneurship as being only the business development component. For me, it is a holistic understanding … the entrepreneurship that a university brings in all its responsibilities, all its dimensions.

“We speak now of sustainable entrepreneurship as we go forward … and in the words of Professor Norris, it is our impact orientation, that should be strengthened.

“A goal for action is to see sustainable entrepreneurship as a key focus area of future AAUN priorities, but also with a very strong consideration cross-cutter of working with industry.”