File picture: Timothy Bernard/Independent Media
What would you think of a university that provides you with world-class education, pays for your internship abroad and, when you graduate, gives you a cool $100 000 (R1.24 million) to start your own business?

Welcome to the world of entrepreneurial universities, a new trend among institutions of higher learning worldwide of going beyond their traditional role of providing education to incorporate research, innovation, commercialisation of knowledge and entrepreneurship.

There is no one-size-fits-all definition of the entrepreneurial university, but rather a plurality of approaches, inventive, creative and yet practical, that distinguishes the entrepreneurial style.

Tired of churning out thousands of graduates each year who cannot find jobs, universities are gravitating towards innovation and entrepreneurship. These universities go by different names: some call them entrepreneurial universities, others innovation universities, and others refer to the business “incubators” that take students through the rigours of running a business. The common thread is the emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Ronnie Washington, a 28-year-old US graduate, understands well the benefits of attending entrepreneurial universities. In 2014, he joined Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business for a two-year master of business administration degree. Near the end of his course, he travelled to Ghana for a five-week internship, sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, otherwise known as Seed. It paid for his ticket and accommodation.

Learning the ropes

While in Ghana, Washington worked under Michael Amankwa, the founder and chief executive of CoreNett, a tech company that creates electronic payment-processing programmes for financial institutions, retailers and governments. Here he learned the ropes of running a business. No challenge he faced during his time in Ghana, from infrastructure problems to power outages, could stop the young graduate from seeing the bigger picture - what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

On his return to the US, Washington created Onward, a computer application that makes it easier for low-income workers to save and also to borrow money from a revolving credit line for small family emergencies. In late 2016, he was named the Stanford Social Innovation Fellow and was given a $110 000 grant to start his own business. Washington is now the chief executive of Onward, based in Washington DC.

In traditional universities a student attends lectures, writes exams and submits a thesis before graduating. But at entrepreneurial universities, students are trained to go a step further and turn their research papers into business ventures. Some universities also liaise with industries interested in using their type of research.

In their book Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century, US authors Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein say universities should use their vast “intellectual and financial resources to confront global challenges such as climate change, extreme poverty, childhood diseases and an impending worldwide shortage of clean water”.

Hastened by globalisation and increased competition, the industrial mode of production has run out of steam in many countries. And so has the traditional scheme for post-secondary education, with its emphasis on theory over practice. Far more emphasis is needed in practical experience, academics are starting to say, in a real working environment.

This entrepreneurial phenomenon is not limited to business schools, but also occurs in universities specialising in such fields as agriculture, science, medicine and information technology.

Some of the many US universities that have been quick to embrace the innovation and entrepreneurship model include Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the University of California and the University of Wisconsin. Stanford University in 2015 opened two centres in Africa (in Ghana and Kenya) to offer internship programmes to young entrepreneurs.

Brazil, China, Europe and North and Latin America, as well as some newly industrialised or industrialising countries, have embraced it.

Responding to needs

Calestous Juma, professor of practice of international development at Harvard's Kennedy School, says African universities should embrace innovations to be able to “respond to local needs”.

In February 2016, African leaders invited Professor Juma to the AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to present a paper on how universities can integrate education, research and innovation.

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One of the objectives of the AU’s Agenda 2063, Africa’s development blueprint for the next 50 years, is to reposition the continent as a strategic player in the global economy through improved education and the application of science and technology in development. Achieving these objectives will require aligning education, research and innovation with long-term socio-economic objectives.

So far, only a couple of universities in Africa have embraced innovation and entrepreneurship. Juma gives an example of Stellenbosch University, which built and launched a satellite as one of its innovations.

Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Juma says, “pioneered in commercialising tissue culture bananas, bringing together teaching, research and product commercialisation.” Tissue culture is a method whereby plants are produced from roots, leaves or stems in a lab in great numbers to increase yields.

The university also recently created the Nairobi Industrial and Technology Park in a public-private partnership with Kenya’s Ministry of Industrialisation and Enterprise Development to facilitate uptake of university research results by industry players. It will also provide a shopping mall space to incubated firms started by the students.

In West Africa, the University of Ghana is implementing the same innovation and entrepreneurship model. While acknowledging the need to “[change] the orientation of universities in Africa.