/ 25 June 2024

The imperative for the entrepreneurial university

The graduate unemployment rate is still lower than the rate among those with other educational levels. This means that education is still the key to these young people’s prospects improving in the South African labour market.
Graduates need to be able to show what they can do with what they know and universities should be measured, not only by the number and quality of graduates, but by employment statistics. (AFP)

“The world doesn’t care about what you know. The world only cares about what you can do with what you know and it doesn’t care about how you learnt it.” This quote by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman cuts to the chase of what teaching and learning are about. A world that’s facing complex challenges, and teetering on the brink of catastrophe either through social inequality, global conflict, pandemics or radical climate change, needs problem-solving skills and solutions. And here is the critical question — can graduates deliver what the world requires? 

Graduation ceremonies were recently held at many universities in South Africa. These were memorable and joyful occasions as families celebrated the success of a member graduating. Finally, the demands on time, effort and money had come to an end and the enticing prospects of employment beckoned. 

For universities too this was a highlight on the calendar; a time to acknowledge the outcomes of scholarly endeavours — teaching, discourse and research. Graduates attaining cum laude and summa cum laude distinctions in a host of subjects were showcased to the world. 

Unfortunately for many graduates, the post-graduation phase is also a time when the harsh reality of life kicks in and when hope quickly dissolves into despair. This is when CV mailings are unanswered, when calls for employment are not returned and when graduates see too many “no vacancies” signs. And sadly, that’s the reality facing many graduates in South Africa today. According to Statistics South Africa, unemployment among young individuals (aged 15 to 34 years) stands at 45.5%. 

In light of the prevailing youth unemployment crisis, universities should be at the forefront of addressing this and must be keenly motivated to achieve overlapping goals: to develop knowledge capital that brings value to social and commercial challenges and to prepare graduates who can enable that. 

Hence we shouldn’t measure the success of a university by the number of its graduates and the research output from academics. A more authentic measure should be the number of graduates who successfully enter into the job market, either through formal employment or entrepreneurship, and who are able to show what they can do with what they know. 

Universities are social institutions and integrally located within society. They benefit from the public purse (government subsidies) and therefore they should not be intellectual ivory towers, but should be of service, and bring solutions to the enduring challenges faced in society. 

The indisputable reality is that the formal economy simply cannot absorb large numbers of graduates and that alternatives for self-employment must be offered as part of formal academic undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Universities should therefore be equipping graduates with the foundational skills to make self-employment a real career option. Entrepreneurship needs to be integrated into all academic disciplines — even the arts. 

However, nurturing entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking in the student body and in pedagogy requires that the university itself, in its ethos and praxis, becomes an entrepreneurial institution. This can mean that the institution becomes less risk averse about testing new models of teaching and learning, less bureaucratic and more open to change. 

After all, the world is changing. Technology is changing. New opportunities are coming on stream all the time and new skills and ways of working are needed to thrive in a rapidly changing, increasingly complex and global environment. 

So, what can be done by the higher education institutions to better equip graduates with coping skills for professional life? 

It starts with bold and visionary leadership. These have to be the kind of leaders who  recognise that the world is changing at pace, is becoming more complex, that traditional ways of working are over — and who are willing to do something about it. 

The contemporary world prioritises decisiveness, speed, agility, adaptability, rapid uptake of technology, entrepreneurship, problem solving and excellent social skills. Higher education leaders should inspire academics and researchers to critically reflect on what is being taught, why it’s being taught, how it’s being taught and the value it carries into society and the job market. 

In a context like South Africa where there is so much economic and political uncertainty, and which is also competitive and resource constrained, the traditional instructional pedagogy of “chalk and talk” and “publish or perish” research, that does not relate to lived realities, must be revised. These need to be replaced with problem-based learning and case studies where theory is integrated with praxis and that links learning to real-world experiences. This also requires that academics and researchers be less insular and more willing to forge closer engagements and collaborations with industry. 

In addition, as with many European universities, such as Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, higher education institutions should host innovation/ incubation hubs where students can develop, test and prototype ideas for potential commercial enterprise. 

If stewarded efficiently, these could also be income generators with universities providing the research and development capabilities or where universities take equity stakes in potentially viable start-ups. Incubating start-up companies that can become the SMMEs or major corporations of the future will vastly reduce the unemployment burden facing the country. It’s a fact that Facebook, Microsoft and Apple were all started by student entrepreneurs. 

Transforming teaching and learning in higher education is complex and monumental. It requires what Otto Scharmer refers to as “three openings”: open heart, open mind, open will. There has to be awareness of the unemployment challenges we’re facing and a willingness to do something about it. Afterall, if higher education does not embrace this proactively and with purpose, who will? 

Rudi Kimmie is the interim director of the Aerotropolis Institute Africa at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Niezaam Davids is the managing director at FG La Pasta. They write in their personal capacities.