Universities in Africa must share the blame for churning out unemployable graduates, hence the growing pressure on them to align what they do more closely with changing labour market needs in which entrepreneurship skills, technology and knowledge are some of the key success drivers.
But African universities face financial pressure, which affects the quality of their programmes and teaching personnel.
To deal with this problem, African universities must first overcome their high dependence on income from students’ tuition and government subsidies and embrace the entrepreneurial university concept. Entrepreneurial skills appears to be the only way to meet financial challenges.
This emerged during the second global annual meeting of the Forum for Innovation in African Universities (FIAU). Themed ‘Higher Education Resilience in Africa post COVID-19’, the meeting, which took place in July, brought together academic participants from various African and global universities.
Encouraging an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’
While addressing participants, Professor Olusola Oyewole, the secretary general of the Association of African Universities (AAU), said that entrepreneurship skills is very important because it encourages students to launch their businesses once, or even before, they have graduated and this allows them to chart their future.
It also fulfils the universities’ mandate, which is to provide an environment conducive to imparting knowledge, information and ideas for development.
He said encouraging an “entrepreneurial spirit is a win-win situation for both the students and the university fraternity as it leads to sustainable development. Entrepreneurship skills creates more jobs on the continent and increases the middle class, which is essential in sustaining economic growth and promoting innovation.”
“[Entrepreneurial universities can] also generate revenue through commercialised research projects that contribute to the sustainability and progress of the institutions of higher learning,” he emphasised.
At the meeting, objectives were explored through sessions focused on building a culture of entrepreneurial universities, seeking pathways to an entrepreneurial skill oriented university, looking at global best practices in entrepreneurial higher education, and the African academic as entrepreneur.
In line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include entrepreneurship as part of SDG 4 (quality education) which aims to substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment and decent jobs, presenters during the four key sessions agreed that there is a pressing need to focus more on entrepreneurship skill emphasis in all desciplines.
They also agreed that, through curriculums that focus on entrepreneurship, the commercialisation of intellectual assets like research projects, academic-industry partnerships, investment in entrepreneurship centres and start-up schemes, universities in Africa can flourish as they could generate sustainable income streams with strong industry backing.
Colin Sirett, the former head of research, Airbus UK, and the CEO of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, said while speaking about creating a sustainable environment for entrepreneurial growth in Africa, that the recognition of key entrepreneurship stakeholders in higher education is essential to achieve sustainability.
“We all need these three areas [including economic, environmental and social] for sustainability in developing and achieving our goals. This will be met by a shared vision and shared values,” he said.
He added that [these collaborative efforts] can help to mentor and directly support young generations. Entrepreneurship skill challenges perceptions of relevance, he said.
Collaboration is key
In her contribution as part of the theme ‘Global Best Practices in an Entrepreneurial University’, Professor Esther Akinlabi, the director of the Pan-African University (PAU) Institute for Life and Earth Sciences (PAULESI), said that every graduate is entitled to have entrepreneurship skills to drive an innovation economy.
She said that, at PAU, students embraced entrepreneurship through incubation programmes, engagement in learning excursions and innovation challenges with other universities in Nigeria.
She also mentioned that students engage in Afrocentric events which connect them to sector leaders to expose them to local and continental innovative development at the innovation hub established at PAULESI. They also have entrepreneurship skill master classes to equip them with the skills and mindsets to think entrepreneurially about their research areas.
“We have career development of professional portfolios and also prepare for the world of work through pre-incubation programmes with students or entrepreneurs for students that have found commercial channels for their research projects seeking to scale impact for value, innovation and challenge,” she said.
Responding to a question raised by a participant on protecting innovative projects from being copied and duplicated, Akinlabi said that strengthening the protection of intellectual property (for both PhD and masters students) as part of the curriculum to protect innovations as a policy measure is vital in higher learning institutions.
Other than curricula reforms, which appeared to be a dominating challenge for thriving entrepreneurship in African universities for students, other challenges that came up include: organisational transformation and reorganisation of knowledge (people and opportunities which are not given keen consideration); ideological threats; notions of capitalist tendencies; and the demise of academic autonomy through utilitarian approaches to modern university education.
This is according to Professor Abiodun Adebayo, the vice-chancellor of Covenant University, Nigeria, and a governing board member of the Association of African Universities, who recommended that universities should aim to develop specific entrepreneurship skill models such as social science or technical innovation enterprises, and this should be done within the framework of active cooperation between [the universities and] the business environments.
He also recommended that emphasis should be on discipline-based entrepreneurship education (because each field has its own entrepreneurial challenges) as a way of fast-tracking the transformation of universities to become entrepreneurial.
According to the FIAU brief, regional powers in Asia, Europe, and North America are enticing talented young Africans, transitioning into entrepreneurial mentor entities in an increasingly globalizing and highly competitive higher education environment.
It emphasises the need for African universities to reflect and retain their unique place as centres of knowledge creation that play a crucial role in nurturing young talented Africans, especially in today’s world shaped by 4.0 technologies.
The brief goes on to say that the Centre for African Entrepreneurship and Leadership (CAEL) at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK has been at the forefront of working closely with Africa’s key higher education stakeholders, including funders, to support a cohort of African universities to transition into entrepreneurial skill entities, and efforts will continue.
Main takeaways as the hybrid event concluded included that African universities should focus more on training and teaching students practical hands-on entrepreneurship skills; African universities have to embark on income-generating activities as most of them suffer financial shocks and debts, focusing on the agricultural sector more because of its entrepreneurial potential; and fully embracing digital transformation for research and innovation.
Also, universities are not standalone entities as they need to collaborate and engage the new generation with the existing workforce in the creative, engineering and science industries.