Entrepreneurial Universities: the search for academic enterprise | Allan Gray Orbis Foundation
Entrepreneurial Universities: the search for academic enterprise

Entrepreneurial Universities: the search for academic enterprise

A TSiBA student guides the Circle of Excellence Principals around the university's Cape Town campus.
A TSiBA student guides the Circle of Excellence Principals around the university’s Cape Town campus.

A few weeks ago the Economist headlined with the phrase – “Creative Destruction” Now one would expect that they were applying the iconic phrase of the founding father of entrepreneurship, Joseph Schumpeter, in relation to some new technology or a flagship industry of the economy. It therefore might be a surprise to learn that they were actually using it in reference to an institution, which has remained largely unchanged in its thousand-year history – none other than the university.

But after a slow start, the university is making up for lost time in the change department. Three fundamental forces are driving this reinvention of the university: Rising costs, changing demand as life long learning starts to become a reality of innovation shifts in the job market and disruptive technology. Technology in particular has long held out the promise of new possibilities for greater effectiveness in education, but now this potential is finally being delivered. It is remarkable to reflect on the new world of learning that is now so easily accessible. In the last few weeks I have signed up for a Stanford Introduction to Computer Science course, transported into the epicentre of Silicon Valley at the click of a mouse, while at the same time hearing a headmaster relate his excitement from sitting in a local coffee shop listening to the top academic in the field share his insights around leadership in education in a MOOC (“Massive Open On-line Course”) he has just started.

Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, in his recent book “The One World Schoolhouse – Education Reimagined” paints a vivid picture of where this future might take us. His “new” university places a much heavier emphasis on practical experiences and internships, which are then supported with on-line self-paced academic platforms to provide the underlying theory of the disciplines covered. Not so much a flipping of the classroom as a flipping of the whole university! And while this might sound far fetched, already the University of Waterloo in Canada is regarded as one of the top engineering universities in the world with a educational approach that includes graduates finishing their degree with a full twenty four months of internships at leading companies.

Now while this sort of change might seem intimidating, it provides a powerful opportunity. For a related example, Brazil has similarities to South Africa in that significant numbers of youth are not accessing tertiary level education. In response, it it is reported that Brazil’s for-profit educational institutions now have three-quarters of the country’s higher-education market, largely driven by their low fees and improving quality. An equivalent statistic for private universities in South Africa would be closer to 10%. Given the challenges of access and throughput in South Africa this is not an opportunity we can afford to miss.

Leigh Meinert, co-founder of TSiBA, speaking at the Circle of Excellence Principals Conference.
Leigh Meinert, co-founder of TSiBA, speaking at the Circle of Excellence Principals Conference.

This is not to say that there has been no innovation in South Africa. One only has to look at the Tertiary School in Business Adminstration (“TsIBA”), the free university established in Cape Town with a strong focus on entrepreneurial development, as a powerful example of the possibilities of thinking differently. But while there might be aspects of innovation it is not pervasive. As a Foundation driving entrepreneurial mindset with our students at nine universities across the country, it is evident that entrepreneurial thinking is not a central focus. Yet a more consistent understanding of our institutions as academic enterprises is required if we are to move South Africa forward.

One of the leading examples of re-orientating a university into an academic enterprise is Arizona State University. ASU President Michael Crowe states: “Enterprise is a concept sometimes wholly lacking in discussions about higher education. ‘Academic enterprise’ and the entrepreneurial academic culture that such an orientation instils encourages creativity and innovation with intellectual capital—the primary asset of every college and university.” It is a matter of simply realising that universities can only effectively become incubators of entrepreneurship and innovation if they themselves practice entrepreneurship.

There are important benefits for South Africa to capture in this higher education revolution. Firstly higher education history is framed around the tension between scale and excellence. Historically you had to choose between one or the other. The “new” higher education institution can pursue both, a very enticing prospect for a country currently burdened with both low access and throughput rates. On the scale side of the equation, the cost benefits of integrating technology more fully into the educational system allow for greater access, while at the same time harnessing opportunities such as the adaptive learning platform, Knewton, to maintain excellence in academic performance through previously impossible customisation of learning pathways, even at significant levels of scale.

How should our universities be responding to these seismic shifts in higher education? We look forward to your thoughts.

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  • Asgar 31/07/2014 at 12:45 pm

    I think that there needs to be better communication and integration of theory and practice between universities and the world of work. Knowledge does not only get generated through the clinical research process. Google has become the university course directory of the common man. Every person has the ability to be creative and to collect and use information, depending on their drive, motivation and intention to use that information. Platforms such as Coursera have opened up the university experience to everyone. This results in there being global classrooms, global debates, idea sharing, new knowledge generation-without having to go to a building, without having to pay, without having to wait for a lecturer to get back to you. Moreover, cross-disciplinary practice seems more achievable through this type of engagement. The rigidity of the university experience needs to change and so too does it mindset. Who and what are you more likely to trust: Information that has been generated (by an entity) from a removed-observed perspective; or information that has been generated (by an entity) from an involved, informed and innovative perspective? Does life happen while you learn, or do you learn while life happens around you?

    • Anthony Farr 04/08/2014 at 9:31 pm

      Asgar, these are important points. The 1,000 year old university model has to adapt. You have captured the challenges and new developments well!

  • Anthony Farr 09/08/2014 at 11:06 am

    Forbes has now released its 2014 most entrepreneurial university list (http://buff.ly/1otkAGo) with Stanford University placed number one. Forbes ranked 50 of America’s most entrepreneurial research universities based on their entrepreneurial ratio. This ratio was defined as the number of alumni and students who have identified themselves as founders and business owners against the schools total student body. It would be interesting to see what would emerge when doing this analysis in South Africa?

  • Phumlani Nkontwana 15/06/2015 at 3:24 pm

    My comments are very late. I am sorry to be out of fashion a little bit. However I am doing a Masters dissertation on this topic and I thought I should also share my thoughts and where my research is pointing at so far. My study explores the relationship between higher education institutions (HEIs) and entrepreneurial outcomes.

    The study takes the view that entrepreneurship can be taught but that higher education institutions (HEIs) are not entirely suited for the active promotion of entrepreneurship or enabling of entrepreneurial intentions of students as do perhaps independent entrepreneurship programmes such as AGOF for example. So far my research points out that HEIs have a spectrum of other priority goals that put entrepreneurship education on the back foot, as Anthony and Asgar have also alluded.

    A Greek study by Piperopoulos (2012) investigated whether higher education programmes, culture and structure hindered entrepreneurial intentions of students. The findings suggested that students’ entrepreneurial intentions and aspirations deteriorate during their four-year studies in universities and faculty members lack the mentality towards entrepreneurship education. The data also revealed that the universities’ structure and regulations, in Greece, prohibit the commercialisation of knowledge, technology transfers, spin-off enterprises and industry-university collaborations; an antithesis to the Silicon Valley model.

    The Silicon Valley model can be summed up as the restructuring of the
    organization to gain the necessary dynamism and flexibility for better risk
    minimization, increased efficiencies and continued innovation spin-offs through networks and collaborations (Saxenian 1991: 423-425). If university structures are rigid and do not promote industry-university networks, they leave very little room for student-based enterprises to emerge.

    Other researchers also hold the view that university structure and regulation could itself be a barrier to entrepreneurship education and training. For example, Miettinen (2008) makes the observation that HEIs in Finland have lost connection with public or societal research programmes leading to a mismatch between the needs of the society and research output. Furthermore, the study calls for global university transformation to go beyond improving the content of business modules and to develop entrepreneurship education and training that also accommodates fields outside the commerce discipline.

    Meanwhile, European entrepreneurship education and training has not been fully accepted or integrated into the academic offerings of HEIs. A European study by Wilson (2008) reveals that entrepreneurship champions struggle to get strong commitment from university leadership, who still need a complete paradigm shift as institutional culture, practice and policies often get in the way of developing an entrepreneurial spirit and environment within universities. One could make a similar observation in the case of South African universities, which are the focus of this study. Many universities in South Africa still offer entrepreneurship education and training indirectly through mainstream business related programmes like business studies, economics and/or business management, among few other modules.

    One could argue that if South African HEIs were serious about entrepreneurship education and training at an undergraduate level, there would have fully functional, independent and well-funded ‘entrepreneurship’ departments or centers. Related studies also reveal a bleak international experience with respect to the existence, structuring and funding
    of such focused and dedicated entrepreneurship departments or centers. An
    English study by Levie (1999: 20) cites the lack of professionalism at HEIs as one of the reasons behind poor academic legitimacy of and slow progress within the entrepreneurship field, as too few teachers of entrepreneurship are full-time, faculty staff with a teaching and research focus in entrepreneurship.

    We find the same attributes, challenges and mindset characterizing the South African universities. South African universities also need to quickly catch up with this enterprising wagon as do similar institutions around the world. While, our case, as Anthony points out (especially with high youth unemployment), is urgent; it is nevertheless comforting that – as my contribution highlights – many global HEIs face similar transformation challenges as do ours.

  • nkosi khumalo 23/07/2015 at 12:36 pm

    In other words, we need a life-oriented approach to higher education in South Africa. Currently there are too many gaps in the very academia-inclined education we are offering and it is not serving us well.

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