African countries have been urged to develop new universities that are entrepreneurial from the outset to counter challenges posed by unemployment, hunger and the vulnerabilities of health risks and climate change as well as competition for scarce natural resources.
The call was made by the United Nations-backed Economic Commission for Africa, or ECA, that has identified entrepreneurial universities as those institutions that translate their research into innovations, intellectual property, incubations and enterprise development.
In a study, ‘Advancing entrepreneurial universities in Africa,’ ECA developed a research strategy that countries can use to assess whether their existing universities are entrepreneurial in character. The strategy could also be used as a guiding framework while establishing new universities on the continent.
An entrepreneurial mission
ECA researchers envisioned an academic structure whereby the university’s traditional mission of teaching and research would be integrated with a third entrepreneurial mission, namely engagement and impact, to generate knowledge of social and economic relevance.
According to Victor Konde, a scientific affairs officer at ECA and the study’s lead investigator, the proposed academic structure was based on a survey conducted in 13 universities where entrepreneurship has been integrated as a major part of their mission and strategy.
“That concept articulated the ECA’s vision of entrepreneurial universities, regardless of their diverse characteristics, inputs, activities and pathways that may be adopted,” stated Konde.
Seven universities were from Ghana. Two private universities, the Academic City University College and Ashesi University, are on the list. The rest are all public institutions, namely Accra Technical University, Ghana Communication Technology University, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, University of Cape Coast and the University of Ghana.
Also selected were three Ethiopian public universities, Addis Ababa University, Bahir Dar University and Haramaya University, as well as three public South African Universities, namely, Durban University of Technology, Nelson Mandela University and Stellenbosch University.
For African higher education to transcend abstract academic knowledge, ECA proposed universities should have the capacity to span teaching and research into business incubation and start-ups with stakeholders, through science parks and shared product development.
Seven guiding areas
Towards this goal, ECA highlighted seven broad areas that should be part of the guiding framework for establishing entrepreneurial universities in Africa.
According to the study, those critical areas included leadership and governance; organisational capacity; people and incentives; entrepreneurship development in teaching and learning; and pathways for entrepreneurs.
A focus on an entrepreneurial university as an internationalised institution; university-business and external relationships for knowledge exchange; and measuring the impact of the entrepreneurial university, were other areas that would strengthen the culture of entrepreneurial universities, according to the study.
ECA suggests that there is urgency for African countries to establish entrepreneurial universities, as the increasing demand for higher education on the continent presents an opportunity to design and develop new sets of universities that are entrepreneurial from the outset.
According to the study, such universities could readily provide skills for the bulging youth population on the continent.
“Estimates suggest that, by 2034, the African workforce will be about 1.1 billion out of an estimated total population of 1.8 billion people and, by that time, about 64% of the African population will be under the age of 30,” stated the report.
Further, ECA is concerned about the rising unemployment, especially among university graduates, some of whom are underemployed or poorly remunerated, or remain unemployed for several years.
In this regard, researchers noted that pressure is on African universities to provide an education that will inspire and empower students and the community at large.
According to Konde and his associates at the ECA, entrepreneurial universities stand to provide solutions to the problem by imparting skills required by job markets and, in this case, there is a need for universities in Africa to position themselves to become entrepreneurial in nature.
Still, taking into account that the research and development system in Africa is at a developing stage, ECA argued that entrepreneurial universities were in a position to develop pathways towards bringing their research outputs to the market through industrial partnerships.
The issue is that, in most African countries, performance of research and development is highest in the higher education sector, a matter that underscores the value of entrepreneurial universities.
But ECA has pointed out that developing new or reshaping old universities into entrepreneurial institutions is not an easy option, as has been found within the universities surveyed.
Barriers related to a lack of autonomy in taking up entrepreneurial activities were significant, especially in Ethiopian universities, where 88% of respondents at Bahir Dar University and 50% at Addis Ababa University believed that universities did not have the autonomy for their work.
“Although there were structures, the respondents were not satisfied with the level of commitment by the leadership to implementing the entrepreneurial strategies,” stated the study that was published in parts, the last being released in May.
Whereas, most of the respondents cited scarcity of funding, it emerged that funding sources for entrepreneurial strategies in universities in Ethiopia were more limited than those in Ghana. South African universities had relatively better sources of funding in their entrepreneurial activities.
To avert a scarcity of funding entrepreneurial activities in African universities, ECA suggested an ecosystem funding model that would draw support from multiple sources and not depending solely on governments.
But, to increase funding beyond governmental support, ECA said higher education governance structures should be established to enable entrepreneurial universities to increase their funding from alumni donations, local private funding and from external sources. Other sources of funding were suggested, such as donations from charities and trusts and, above all, reinvestment of entrepreneurial incomes from the universities themselves.
According to the study, in most African countries, universities relied heavily on government research grants that were not competitive and often such grants went to persons who have little capacity to do research.
Among the four countries across Africa that were included in the ECA study, South Africa had the highest commitment towards implementation of entrepreneurial strategy through the higher education programme of Universities South Africa, or USAf, a consortium of 26 public universities in the country. Algeria, the fourth country in the group, will have its findings published at a later date.
Data collected from the three South African universities indicated a strong commitment and support from senior leadership, especially of the ownership and accountability of entrepreneurial education enterprise.
“All three universities demonstrated a high level of engagement with their local communities and some strong partnerships,” stated the study.
For instance, Stellenbosch was found to pursue relevant applied research for industry that generates an average revenue of about ZAR1.2 billion [US$62.5 million] per annum. According to the study, the university leads the rest of African universities in the development of intellectual property and has a track record of having the highest number of spin-off companies.
But such successes are few and far between, yet it is an eye-opener that an entrepreneurial culture in the university sector in Africa could not only make universities more resilient and sustainable but can also improve the academic well-being of both faculty and students.
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