The ordinance for higher education is knowledge generation. Beyond this, universities equally strive to exploit knowledge and, as rightly posited by Prof. Irene Moutlana (former Vice Chancellor of Vaal University of Technology) and quoted in the October 3, 2015 edition of University World News in a Karen MacGregor article, higher education institutions are “businesses that sell a highly perishable commodity – knowledge. As the economy changes, or the context changes, so too must content of curricula and the learning experiences of students, in order for them to meaningfully contribute to socio-economic development.”
It is not difficult to assert that universities are gravitating towards innovation and entrepreneurship. But the key issue is that many educational institutions do not know what they want when they talk about entrepreneurship.
What is entrepreneurial about a university?
First, there is no single definition of entrepreneurship. The key entrepreneurial processes for universities begin with the motivation to make a difference, identifying opportunities, finding and aligning resources, managing the risks, and building financial and social capital. In essence, entrepreneurship should lead to the development of new ideas, products, or organizational schemes but these will be relevant only when they have actually been used. This understanding helps entrepreneurs to build more effective and sustainable businesses that creates value.
In education, this ‘value’ will have different meanings to different stakeholders. To students, the value is in skills portability, employability or the prospects of higher earnings after school. Academic staff may see it in the innovative teaching approaches that assures them job security, promotion or professional development. Universities, as the corporate entities, will seek to enhance their reputations by, for example, developing tailored programmes to meet dire societal needs. An entrepreneurial university will be the one that operates as a sustainable business and measures its impact across board.
Overcoming entrepreneurial barriers in universities
One major weakness of African universities is human capacity development. From a survey by the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) on the capacity requirements for the implementation of the first 10 years of African Union’s Agenda 2063, Africa had only 55,000 engineers against an estimated 4.3 million engineers by 2023. This meant that the continent needed to produce over 300,000 engineers annually until 2023. Likewise, for an estimated 152,000 agricultural scientists needed by 2023 against a pool of 82,000, the continent needed to produce an average 8,000 agricultural scientists per year till 2023. The geologists needed by 2023 is 174,000 but with just 21,000 available, the continent needed an average 19,000 more geologists annually until 2023.
Looking back into history, Africa may have had a huge reservoir of skilled labour attested to by the imposing pyramids of Giza in Egypt and the numerous ones scattered in that country and in The Sudan. One wonders how much logistics and arithmetic calculations may have gone into building them. But our 21st century engineers, though intelligent, are both quantitatively inadequate and also do not have the business acumen to turn the fortune of Africa around - from being exporters of raw materials like cocoa and copper.
To instigate change for entrepreneurship to happen, leadership is important. If the foundation of the university is not right, it needs to be put right. No entrepreneurship strategies will work in our universities if we have wrong people at the helm of affairs, especially the senior university leaders like the Vice Chancellors under whose direction the universities thrive, and upper middle managers such as the Directors of Colleges and Deans of Departments who are the key change implementers in the institutions. In thinking along the line of value addition at the senior decision-making level, universities should broaden the membership of their Councils to include industry players and development partners who will likely bring in different perspectives of the same idea.
In the world of knowledge, it is misplaced to emphasise the superiority of some disciplines over others. To shift the paradigm, we need to adopt a multidisciplinary dialogue of all disciplines (history, engineering, economics, etc.). An entrepreneurial university will blend all cross-disciplinary educational strategies (mono-, inter-, multi-, and trans-disciplinarity) to make both sense (as of natural sciences) and nonsense of academic specialization. In addition, our pedagogy should be indexed in context and teaching should induce learning. A teaching-learning situation is one in which both teacher and student are learning, and one where successful learning means a positive and lasting change in behaviour, in outlook, and in ways of going about life (Emeritus PAI Obanya, nd).
Very important but often neglected is the integration of indigenous knowledge in the teaching of new knowledge, skills and value systems. Whoever knows that boatmaking is indigenous to Africa, and how have universities fully exploited the potentials in local gin, or salt? How have we exploited the use of alternative medicine (herbal medicine) like China and South Korea are doing in their countries and making billions of dollars annually as revenue. If India is producing her own textbooks, why not Africa? Entrepreneurship can be promoted by appropriate teaching so once we begin to own our indigenous knowledge, the required parameters will fall in place.
Finally, universities on a path of entrepreneurship should establish Technology Transfer Offices (or Intellectual Property Offices) to help them develop and implement effective IP policies. Once discoveries have been made, the universities should assist in creating new businesses from the research outcomes.